Media Player of the Year 2013: Rogers Media

It wanted a piece of the NHL pie, but ended up with the whole thing

It set out to get a piece of the NHL pie, and ended up with the whole thing

L-R Scott Moore and Keith Pelley

“All of it.” Three small words in an otherwise ordinary conversation between the National Hockey League’s chief operating officer, John Collins, and Rogers Media president Keith Pelley ultimately changed the Canadian media world in 2013.

But Rogers’ year was anything but ordinary. It celebrated a long list of accomplishments across many of its properties that, when combined, make Rogers Media the Media Player of the Year.

City enjoyed continued wins that helped entrench its position as a leading national network, the company introduced a new magazine platform that gives its titles new relevance to a digitally focused, tablet-equipped audience, the content marketing division grew thanks to big deals with Walmart Canada and Best Buy Canada, the Shopping Channel was reborn, Rogers specialty channel FX Canada found success with a solid lineup that includes Sons of Anarchy and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and on and on.

But if you want to trace back to the one moment that led to Rogers’ biggest victory of the year, it was that conversation and the second Collins said “all of it.”
It came around the time Rogers secured the deal for the NHL’s behind-the-scenes documentary 24/7. At the time, the broadcast industry was already talking about other, larger NHL rights—the national broadcast rights—since negotiations were on the horizon with the existing CBC and TSN deals due to expire with the end of the 2013/2014 season.

Pelley lobbed out a few questions to Collins about the national broadcast rights. “This is the way rights work,” Pelley recalls of the casual banter that so often precedes formal negotiations. The Rogers Media president threw out a hypothetical about the NHL’s strategy. “What’s going to be the plan? Are you going to open up another package?” Pelley asked, as there had been talk that the NHL may be creating a new national Sunday night package. “Well, we’re contemplating that. What would you be interested in?” asked Collins, about to drop the revelation that led to a $5.2-billion deal. “But, you know,” said Collins. “We’re also looking and maybe even thinking about selling all of it.”

For years, Rogers and its Sportsnet brand have chased Bell Media and TSN for the number one spot in sports in Canada. But that was the moment when Rogers leaping ahead of Bell became possible.

Fast forward to Sept. 12—the day the NHL had its first official meeting with Rogers executives to discuss the national rights. At first, the NHL wanted to gauge Rogers’ interest in the Sunday night package, or any of the packages. “At that particular time, we said, ‘Well, what if we were interested in all of it?’ ” says Pelley. The league immediately agreed to consider that possibility and to put together a package.

The next day, the NHL came back and presented an all-encompassing proposal for Rogers. “The package that they then presented as ‘the everything package’ was very, very close” to what was agreed upon at the end of the negotiations, says Pelley.

“Once we had made the decision [internally to acquire all of the rights], then we decided to act very, very swiftly and concluded an agreement with the NHL as well as sublicensing deals with TVA and CBC in five days,” he says.

The deal with the National Hockey League catapults Rogers Media to the top spot in Canadian sports media in one massive swoop. The landmark deal will see the media company gain control of national broadcast and multimedia rights to NHL games on all platforms in all languages for 12 years, starting with the 2014/15 season.

“There’s nothing more powerful in Canada than hockey,” says Scott Moore, president of broadcast at Rogers Media, and a former top executive at CBC. “It is the Holy Grail; it’s the most coveted content in the land and to be able to control how it’s utilized, how it’s leveraged, it’s incredibly powerful for us.”

Not only will it bring audience ratings, adds Moore, but it will also bring audience affinity. “People will think ‘NHL hockey equals Sportsnet; I love NHL hockey, I love Sportsnet.’”

“We are indisputably the leader in sports now in Canada and that’s a very, very good position in the way that people are consuming content because sports obviously is something you want to watch live and we have the strongest content,” says Pelley.

It may take Canadian viewers awhile to realize the breadth of the deal, and the huge impact it will have on how they consume hockey. Professor Pierre Bélanger of the University of Ottawa’s department of communication says, “For the time being, if you ask the layperson on the street, everybody knows what Sportsnet is. But is it the prime destination for sports? Not [in 2013], but in September, most definitely.”

More than simply having the deep pockets needed to seal this deal, Rogers put in years of work to build towards the historic agreement. “We knew in order to be in a position to be number one, we had to do a lot of work with our brand because the Sportsnet brand was not strong enough in 2010,” says Moore.

There’s more! To read the full profile of our Media Player of the Year, pick up the Jan/Feb issue of Marketing magazine, on newsstands now and available on your iPad.

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