Sportsnet One Screens out the Sedins

Did we really need another sports station? One that carries Canuck games we can't see?

By Steve Burgess 10 Sep 2010 |

Steve Burgess watches TV and movies for a living. Well, not a living, really.

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'Look Ma, I'm not on TV.'

"I never turn on the TV in winter," an old ballplayer once said, "because I figure I'd just see a picture of an empty ball park."

A camera fixed on an empty arena would probably draw big summer numbers in Vancouver. So here's good news: this season Canuck fans may end up with something similar. How about a picture of a hockey game that no one can see?

The Canucks' 2010/2011 TV season will feature a total of 24 games on either CBC or TSN. There will be no pay-per-view games this season -- they're gone like Tom Larscheid. That leaves only Rogers Sportsnet. The team's main rights holder is apparently scheduled to broadcast 45 games, leaving 13 that would once have been pay-per-view. Those 13 games are tentatively set to air on Rogers' new channel, Sportsnet One. If you subscribe to Shaw Cable, you'll find Sportsnet One right next to the Nashville Qu'Ran Channel and the 24-Hour Gordon Campbell Access Channel. Keep looking -- it must be there somewhere.

Or perhaps not. Sportsnet One was ostensibly launched on Aug. 14. If so, the launch will probably show up on that Discovery Channel show Destroyed in Seconds that features video of stuff falling over and exploding. Intended to carry Toronto Blue Jays baseball, regional hockey broadcasts including the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, and international soccer, Sportsnet One has been hampered by one minor issue: almost no one can see it. Blue Jays fans have already spent weeks fuming as some games have been shifted to Sportsnet One, thereby disappearing down a black hole.

Smackdown: carrier vs. provider

It appears to be a classic showdown between carrier and providers. Using hockey and baseball rights as a stick, Rogers is trying to leverage a better deal with carriers including Telus, Shaw, Delta cable and satellite providers -- presumably a deal that will require more money from subscribers. It's a tricky strategy. Rogers hopes angry subscribers will flood switchboards demanding access to Sportsnet One -- as opposed to just getting angry at Rogers. Shaw recently posted the following online statement about Sportsnet One: 
"We want to carry this service. We are disappointed with the launch tactics that have penalized all sports fans and certainly our customers. The launch tactics are designed to create a squeeze play to maximize economic value for Rogers at the expense of sports fans. We have asked Rogers to do the right thing for sports fans by putting both the Blue Jays games and the hockey games back on the existing Sportsnet service until Sportsnet One is made available. We are in active discussions with Rogers to find a way to make this content available to our customers."

The idea at least has merit -- take away expensive pay-per-view broadcasts and replace them with a regular cable option. Sportsnet has also said that all its Canuck games, both on Sportsnet Pacific and Sportsnet One, will stream online.

Putting aside for the moment the cynicism of assigning rights to a channel no one can see just yet, there is also the issue of need. Another Sportsnet channel? It must be because the existing Sportsnet outlet offers such a cornucopia of stellar programming, such an overflowing bounty of top-rated sports entertainment, that more space was needed to pack it all in. In fact, summer Sportsnet programming might be improved by that Empty Arena Cam. Poker, more poker, Ultimate Fighting, darts, pool, lumberjack competitions, and some Blue Jay games. With a number of Jays telecasts shifted off to Sportsnet One they have occasionally been replaced on the main channel with can't-miss ball games like Detroit vs. Minnesota. Thanks to Sportsnet One we may finally see the formation of that professional leg-wrestling league we've all been waiting for.

Pub warriors

And yet -- Sportsnet made record profits in the last fiscal year. Earnings of $40.7 million actually put it ahead of TSN for the first time. Must be a lot of darts fans out there. Despite the apparent desert of quality sports programming there is still money to be mined from the niche -- particularly from hockey. Thus, Sportsnet One.

Canucks fans must wait to see just how the situation will shake down -- most likely with Sportsnet One made available in a new premium cable package. Meanwhile those who can afford it will troop off to watch the team at the newly re-christened Rogers Arena. Unless, of course, certain home games will be shifted to the Point Grey Golf & Country Club. Go ahead and buy a membership. Chances are they'll put in a rink later.  [Tyee]

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