by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. I’m clearing out the queue on a few small stories. As always, if there are things you think we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.
The Beginning of The End
As we wrote about in this space a few months ago, 2020 marks the very slow beginning of the end of The Bobfather era at TSN. McKenzie tweeted some details about how his role would change over the course of his new five year contract:
My new five-year contract that starts next season will still keep me busy and involved — TSN NHL draft rankings, World Juniors, a handful of Maple Leaf regional games, Trade Deadline Day and Free Agent Frenzy — but it will also allow a lot more free time for fun/sun/yada yada. 😎
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 7, 2020
McKenzie’s scheduled retirement as a TSN hockey insider coincides with the end of the 12 year NHL rights deal with Rogers. TSN will need to groom someone to fill McKenzie’s shoes, especially if they are able to get back in on the national NHL rights and playoffs after being shut out by Gary Bettman in 2013. The $5.2 billion dollar exclusive package that was sold to Rogers at the last minute has proven to be a ratings and financial disaster, costing dozens of Sportsnet people their jobs since 2016 as the company has tried to cut costs. TSN’s current insider crew includes Pierre LeBrun (also of The Athletic), Ray Ferraro, and Frank Seravalli.
The most recent Sportsnet purge saw the departures of many signature faces, including John Shannon, Doug MacLean, and Nick Kypreos. In addition Don Cherry was fired following racist remarks about new Canadians. Daren Millard, Damian Cox, Glenn Healy, and George Stroumboulopoulos were dismissed in previous rounds of layoffs. The current line-up relies on increased visibility for Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman, David Amber, as well as the talented Chris Johnston and boisterous Brian Burke. Ron MacLean remains in his current expanded role on both Saturday and Sunday. It remains to be see whether his part in the Cherry fiasco will affect how the network uses him over the next few years.
With no obvious successor to McKenzie at TSN, and Sportsnet in the process of rebuilding their insider roster it will be interesting to watch who emerges as the next leading voice in Canadian hockey. As of right now the title would probably default to Friedman given his national role at Sportsnet, though he obviously lacks the established credibility that McKenzie brings after years of breaking big news. A more likely outcome is that audiences will gravitate towards several comparable insiders from various outlets. This could be good for the marketplace, as more competition may lead to bigger scoops and greater diversity of opinions. Right now McKenzie controls most of the narrative on the major hockey stories
Over to you: To whom will you turn for insider hockey analysis after the Bobfather retires? From whom would you like to hear more over the next few years?
Both TSN and Sportsnet sent out press releases last week announcing their recent triumphs.
Team Canada’s instant-classic gold medal victory over Team Russia on Sunday at the 2020 #WorldJuniors attracted an average audience of 4.2 million viewers on @TSN_Sports and @RDSca, becoming TSN’s most-watched World Juniors game ever broadcast from Europe. pic.twitter.com/4zkA8PaauV
— TSN PR (@TSN_PR) January 6, 2020
The 4.2 million average number (French and English broadcasts combined) is impressive given that it was competing with the NFL playoffs, also on TSN, during the afternoon. The 2017 gold medal game between Canada and the US, played in Canada during Eastern prime time, averaged 5.2 million. Shortly after the tournament they issues a press release indicating the rights for the WJC would stay with the network into 2034. Bell also owns the rights to the Grey Cup and the Super Bowl, giving them multiple sports properties that land in the annual most watched list. They also hold the Canadian rights for the immensely popular EUFA and FIFA soccer tournaments.
TSN has done a stellar job turning the WJC tournament into a national television product, which in turn expands the profile of their many hockey experts. Jeff O’Neill in particular continues to perform at a high level during these broadcasts. For a detailed analysis on TSN’s coverage see this excellent Scott Stinson article from 2018. The perennial criticism of TSN’s coverage is that it tends to glorify Canadian stories at the expense of responsible journalism about the entire tournament. For example:
Any chance TSN will stop celebrating long enough to actually provide an explanation of that critical non-call in the final minutes?
— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) January 5, 2020
Over at Sportsnet, celebrations took place on twitter after another successful year:
🗣️📣 For the 5th straight year, @Sportsnet remains Canada’s #1 Sports Network! 🍁
💻 And for a 2nd straight year, https://t.co/GiJrZ7NyHS is the #1 most-visited sports website in Canada (averaged 4.2 million monthly unique visitors in 2019).
See what happens in 2020! pic.twitter.com/0mMnytP43u
— Sportsnet PR (@SportsnetPR) January 7, 2020
Unlike previous years, there was no accompanying press release to substantiate claiming the title of “#1 sports network”. As we have seen in the past, both networks can anoint themselves victorious by fiddling with the raw television data from Numeris, and whether or not they are including radio and web traffic.
Looking ahead, the NHL national rights and Blue Jays games are locked up at Sportsnet, while both networks share the Raptors and Leafs rights due to the fact that Bell and Rogers own MLSE. The other property that is currently in play in Canada concerns the regional rights for some of the other Canadian teams.
Back to the business of media. I'm told that the regional tv rights for your @NHLFlames + @EdmontonOilers both expire after this season. Those in the know believe @Sportsnet will walk away from @NHLFlames and stick with @EdmontonOilers. More as season progresses.
— jonah (@yyzsportsmedia) January 4, 2020
While regional games reach fewer people than national broadcasts they are regarded by some in the industry as attractive in their own right since you are able to advertise directly to a defined local audience. The possibility that Sportsnet would walk away from any regional broadcasts is interesting, and may reflect the extent of their own revised valuation of sports rights in the context of the NHL rights deal.
As I have written countless times, the ratings battle between these two networks is irrelevant for the audience and for most of the people who work there. Anyone who subscribes to cable pays for both TSN and SN. Outside of a handful of executives, on-air and behind the scenes talent do not receive bonuses for annual ratings wins. And of course the flawed ratings methodology employed by Numeris will continue, since it is funded by the very industry it is evaluating. If Rogers and Bell wanted a more accurate ratings system they could have created one by now.
Brunt Branches Out
This week Sportsnet announced that Stephen Brunt would begin his own interview series called Open Invitation, featuring big name guests sitting down for candid discussion. The initial menu includes Dana White, Rob Gronkowski, and Peter Mansbridge. Brunt will also be continuing his legacy project of trying to get fans to embrace Mark Shapiro.
In light of the recent buyout of Bob McCown it is worth discussing what Brunt’s role will be at Sportsnet in the coming years. He was one of the first big name hires from the newspaper industry made by Sportsnet almost a decade ago now. Also on that list are Jeff Blair and Michael Grange, with Damian Cox having been hired to Sportsnet and then eventually let go. Brunt has bounced around in his time at the network, from being a full-time co-host on PTS to moving to Jeff Blair’s show, returning to PTS in a part-time role, and now sharing co-hosting duties on Writers Bloc with Richard Deitsch. Brunt also makes video features for Sportsnet’s television channels, mostly on the Jays or a narrow suite of national stories.
The one thing Brunt does not do for Sportsnet is write. He had six writing credits in 2019, many of which were simply written versions of his video work. He wrote ten pieces for Sportsnet in 2018, again recycling content from videos on many of these occasions. In 2017 audiences saw twelve Brunt bylines. The trend is pretty clear and in my opinion it’s a bad one. Brunt biggest asset is his journalistic credibility, built on years of writing many columns a month for the Globe. That credibility is what Sportsnet was buying high on when they brought him on board in 2011 to be their multi-platform star:
“There is a lot of opportunity with the multiple platforms for a writer to reach an audience. I look forward to giving Sportsnet viewers, readers and listeners a closer look at today’s biggest sports stories. And of course, continuing to trade wits with my good friend McCown.” – Stephen Brunt
Yet as the network increasingly pivots to video, it is readers who are missing out the most as Brunt’s writing continues to wane. This trend extends beyond Brunt, of course, as Sportsnet canceled its magazine in 2016, folding all of those writers into the deluge of content that sportsnet.ca churns out on a daily basis. We have seen a similar trend over at TSN.ca, where writers are buried in small sidebars, or in the case of Rick Westhead, have seen a large drop in their original investigative reporting in favour of features.
All of this is good news for The Athletic, The Star, and The Sun, where writing continues to be the coin of the realm. However this points to a more distressing trend in sports media: rights holders are moving further and further away from writing about the leagues they broadcast. This worry has been noted by others who watch sports media, including SMW, whose predictions for the next decade include:
“By the end of the decade, sports networks that have financial relationships with the major leagues pivot away from journalism almost entirely, save for token efforts that are restricted to low-viewership spots on the schedule.” – Sports Media Watch
Personally, I grew up reading Brunt on everything that matters in sports. Given the realities of who he works for, and the properties they own, I accept that he can’t do that anymore. The frustrating part is that there is currently no one in the marketplace who fills that void, and the writing-focused outlets have done a poor job grooming someone to take over that role. There was a chance for the Globe to hire Bruce Arthur, but they went for the consistently uninteresting Cathal Kelly instead, with GlobeSports now on the verge of disappearing entirely in 2020.
As we wait for Bob McCown’s return to sports media, this is perhaps a gap he could fill. Bob’s not a writer, but I would settle for a weekly podcast covering the major issues at the intersection of sports, business, ethics, and culture.
Over to you: are you excited about Brunt’s new show? are you worried about the slow decline of real journalism in sports?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)
photo credit: AP/Petr David Josek