An Interview with Dave Shoalts

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail


Good morning sports media fans. With the calendar switching over to November this means that Scott Moore’s reign as head of Sportsnet has come to an official end. Moore was a regular topic of conversation around here over the years, in part because of his very public persona and penchant for being in the limelight, but also in part because he helmed the ship during the Rogers takeover of Hockey Night in Canada. As the ratings suffered, many people lost their jobs. Throughout it was Moore who became the face associated with these struggles.


Dave Shoalts of the Globe & Mail has written a new book called Hockey Fight in Canada that details the process that led to Rogers’ winning bid for Canadian NHL rights. He graciously agreed to talk to me. Here is our conversation.


Q:At a time when sports media columns have all but disappeared what prompted you to pitch a general interest book about the NHL rights deal?


DS: The topic got so much readership when I was writing about it for the Globe so it was obviously a natural topic for a book. That said, I didn’t suggest it. I knew from previous experience how much work goes in to writing a book. A book agent gave me a call and talked me into it. So he deserves the credit.


Q: Why do you think the average sports reader is interested in this topic?


DS: This is a show that has been part of people’s lives every Saturday night. So many Canadians feel an attachment for Ron MacLean and Don Cherry. Calling them members of the family might be too strong but it’s in the ballpark. People are connected to the broadcast through their love of a team or the game of hockey in general. And this has been the case for more than sixty years. So when there’s upheaval in this institution, people notice and people get passionate about it.


Q: Many of the key players behind the NHL rights deal have moved on. Was it difficult to get people to talk about how this all went down?


DS: No, actually. All of the main characters were willing to talk, and to talk on the record. This really makes the job so much easier. All of the accounts rang true with each other, so it made the research manageable. I didn’t have to do too much running around to get to the bottom of things.


Q: Some of the financial details have come out in previous reporting. Were the people with whom you spoke comfortable talking on the record about these matters or did you need to find others to fill in the whole picture?


DS: A lot of the people at Rogers were proud of the numbers since these are unprecedented in Canadian media so they spoke pretty freely about the details. One detail that came as a result of extra digging was that Rogers paid … off the top of my head I think it was one million dollars … over the number that Bell had offered the NHL for the same package. Bell had the original idea, and when Bettman decided he wanted to go with Rogers he basically said “offer me a dollar more”. At that level a dollar means a million, apparently.


And this again was a place where the folks from Rogers were helpful. Both Keith Pelley and John Collins (of the NHL) talked a lot about Quebecor’s involvement. It’s not like it was a big scoop on my part but it was under-reported originally. They committed to something like $125 million a year for the length of the deal. When you add that up it changes the $5.2 billion number significantly. Both said to me that without Quebecor, this deal would never have gotten done. Pelley was able to go to Rogers with the smaller number, and he told me that there was no way they would have said yes to the full amount.


Q: It’s interesting that Rogers comes across as the bad guy when Bell was angling to do the very same thing.


DS: Yeah. TSN lost and it must have been hard for them. And there was no shortage of TSN people who would say they were glad they didn’t have the rights during the first couple of years as Rogers struggled. But they would likely have struggled too since their deal was pretty much the same.


Q: Did TSN have a plan for the scenario in which they were shut out of the rights deal? Do you have a sense of whether they were caught flat-footed?


DS: I think they were pretty confident they had the deal locked up. About a week before Rogers got it details started to leak out about what CBC would retain under a new deal and I’m pretty sure those leaks came from Bell and CBC. So yeah I do think they were caught off guard by Gary’s decision to go across the street. But I will say they seem to have recovered pretty quickly. They may be #2 by the metric of average monthly ratings but they are still making lots of money. Both sides are. TSN bought up stuff like the NFL and Masters and are doing just fine with that.


Q: CBC built the HNIC brand yet they appear to be the biggest loser in all of this. Do you think they were treated fairly in this process?


DS: I do. I think the CBC guys dropped the ball. They were offered chances to stay in the game. They were offered a scaled down version of HNIC by the NHL. And they were offered something similar by Bell, who told them to sit tight and that they would be looked after under a new deal. But CBC got it in their minds that the status quo should prevail in a new deal. It’s shocking to me that they didn’t negotiate a better deal with either Rogers or Bell prior to the eventual negotiation with the NHL. From what I hear the CBC guys wouldn’t even take the call. It made no sense to me, given what they were already facing in terms of cutbacks from the Harper government.


CBC lost half of their ad revenue as a result of this fumble. Not half of their sports ad revenue. Half of the total. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Some would have lost them anyway, to be sure, but this was all made so much worse than it had to be. All because these guys wouldn’t listen to reason. To compound things, when it was announced Rogers won the package they basically rolled over and let Rogers shove a one-sided deal down their throats. It never occurred to anyone that, hey, we are the ones with the national over the air network. And unlike Bell (with CTV), Rogers doesn’t have channels that cover the whole country. CityTV is in a few cities. So CBC handed it all over, and it just makes you shake your head. And that’s why there are still people over at the CBC who are angry about this whole process.


Q: One of the biggest questions we have debated is how to gauge the success or failure of the deal from Rogers’ perspective. Some people are of the opinion that beating TSN in aggregate annual ratings is enough to justify the deal regardless of profit or opportunity costs. Others think that this was always about cell phones. In your research have you formed an opinion about how the deal is being evaluated internally?


DS: Rogers was of the opinion that there were so many different ways they would make money on this deal. When it comes to ratings one thing to keep in mind is that overall viewership is declining because of the trends with younger viewers. It seems to me that the length of the deal may end up being the saving grace for Rogers. It will give them time to figure it out different ways to monetize the content, whether it’s highlights or whatever. The other thing is they caught a break with the Leafs’ accelerated rebuild. In my research no one has said that things are going badly, for what it’s worth. Everyone is pretty optimistic that the deal will be good in the long run.


Q: After year 2 of the deal we saw a number of job losses and changes, including restoring Ron McLean and jettisoning Strombo. Do you think SN tried too hard to put their own stamp on an institution that was working fine?


DS: Yes, but lots of people at CBC will tell you that there was a perception that the existing HNIC was broken. And Rogers didn’t make changes in a vacuum. They did all kinds of market research and had a team of people going across the country talking to hockey fans. The message they received is that people wanted change; well, they didn’t as it turns out.


Q: Scott Moore has some early quotes where he says that people will eventually get used to the changes. But after 2 years they pulled the plug. Do you think they gave the Strombo experiment enough time to take root?


DS: You could argue they didn’t wait long enough but they were getting snowed under and I can see why they acted when they did. I will always wonder though how much of that dissatisfaction from viewers was genuine or just a reflection of the fact that all the Canadian teams were lousy. It’s an interesting thing to consider whether people would have come to like Strombo and the fake ice floors once their own team started playing better and there was more good news. But you can’t argue with the reaction when they essentially rolled the show back to what it was before. The audience was pretty happy with that.


Q: Prior to the deal Bettman sometimes joked and sometimes griped about the perception that he has a hostile relation with Canadian hockey media. Do you think that played any role in deciding to go with Rogers?


DS: What Rogers did that got Gary’s eye was to emphasize players in their coverage. That was a long standing complaint that the NHL had with the CBC; they emphasized the broadcasters too much with all the panel shows, Ron and Don, etc. They wanted more features on the players. Rogers knew enough to pitch a different approach. And this would have mostly been Scott Moore since he had a relationship with Bettman from his days at CBC sports. Rogers served up what Gary wanted to hear and I think that’s what won the day for them.


Q: After securing the deal Scott Moore spoke about being partners with the league, and a new editorial mandate to celebrate the game rather than talk about labour issues or the salary cap. Do you think the journalistic credibility of Sportsnet suffered under Moore’s tenure?


DS: The average fan doesn’t care about that kind of thing. But within the journalism community, yes. It has become a big issue in our business. For example, it has become clear that Sportsnet is just not going to go after the NHL on concussions and CTE while they have this rights deal. But notice that it’s also made a big difference over at TSN. I don’t think they would be nearly as aggressive on those same stories if they had a piece of the national deal with the NHL. It works both ways.


Q: One of my main complaints about Moore’s statements is that he hasn’t talked enough about enacting policies that allow the great journalists Sportsnet employs to do their jobs to the fullest extent, free from influence from the business side. But perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect networks to hold the same standards as newspapers?


DS: So much of this stuff goes unsaid, and for a good reason. You’d have to be a bit thick to work at a network and not understand that the business relationship with the league is important given how much money is tied up in those deals. One clear line, again not that anyone ever says it directly, is that on the game broadcast you’re not going to be throwing rocks at your partner. That’s just the way it is. Of course the same thing is obvious with the Jays and Sportsnet.


Unfortunately for readers and viewers who are interested in honest coverage of the team that’s a vanishing thing. That’s an industry problem as independent media have fewer resources. So more coverage is being done in-house. I’ll be damned if I have a solution though.


Q: Is there any example of an outlet that has managed to walk this line — the one between business interests and journalistic interests — well?


DS: I think the CBC did. But at the end of the day all it did was to enrage Gary. If you’re Sportsnet the last thing you want is angry calls and emails from the league.


Q: As a journalist do you rely on your section editor to shield you from blowback when you write something controversial?


DS: Absolutely. And if you’re at a place that has a business relationship with the people you’re covering that’s not something you can count on. Of course everyone who works at a network will tell you that no one has ever told them what they can and can’t write or how to shape their coverage. As I said, no one ever needs to say that because everyone can tell which way the wind is blowing. And not too many people are going to take the risk of angering their bosses. I’m not trying to be holier than anyone. I would also think twice under those conditions.


Q: Both Bell and Rogers make lots of money from their investment in sports media. Both have similar subscriber numbers and are able to command healthy fees for carriage. Other than professional pride by CEOs, do you think there is a lot at stake in the ratings battle between the two?


DS: I don’t know, but I think it’s mostly about bragging rights. The duelling press releases tell you that. Obviously the bosses care a lot. But I don’t think it makes much of a difference to anyone else.


Q: When Tim Leiweke was head of MLSE he made headlines all the time. The current person is basically invisible. Scott Moore was a very visible character during his time as president of Sportsnet while his counterpart at TSN is the opposite. Do you have an opinion on which is the better approach for Moore’s replacement?


DS: I would think that for longevity’s sake it’s better to remain anonymous. And most of these guys choose that option. Pelley would make the occasional appearance on McCown’s show, but was pretty below the radar. Certainly when you’re involved with something controversial like the NHL rights deal and changing HNIC you’re going to be a target. But, Moore’s departure doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the ratings. There’s no reason to think it wasn’t his idea to leave at this point in time. He had a high profile send off from the network. Broadcast companies don’t do that if they are pushing you out the door.


Q: Moore oversaw a few controversial personnel decisions. He’s the guy who approved the hiring of Dean Blundell. He’s also the guy who had to fire Gregg Zaun after allegations of harassment in the workplace by female co-workers. How do you see his legacy, all things considered?


DS: In the end everything bad will be overshadowed by the fact that Moore got Sportsnet to be equal and then better than TSN. That’s the business and that’s what ultimately matters to these people. He can leave with his head held high because of that. But, he certainly has his detractors. A lot of people lost their jobs due the ratings disappointment in the first few years. That’s also part of his legacy. But they did reach their goal in being number one.


Q: What should the priority be for whoever takes over from Moore?


DS: Find those alternative revenue streams. That’s what will save the deal in the end. It’s the only thing that really matters.


Q: Do you think there’s any chance Rogers hires someone outside the box of existing Canadian media to replace Moore? For example, someone from ESPN?


DS: I don’t know Rick Brace well but he’s a fairly conventional executive. I wouldn’t expect someone out of left field. But hey: isn’t it time a woman ran a sports network?



Thanks to Dave for taking the time. If you want to follow his rock star book tour, he has also made stops on the CBC and on Toronto Mike.


I have some thoughts but I’ll give this a day to breathe and post a follow up later.



thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

photo credit: Douglas & McIntyre/The Globe & Mail
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