Bell, Rogers' buy of Maple Leafs may freeze out pubcaster

MONTREAL — Hockey rules Canadian ratings, so when rival broadcasters and telcos Bell Canada and Rogers Communications teamed to buy the Toronto Maple Leafs, the TV world predicted a big sports rights shakeup, both on the smallscreen and in the digital realm.

But Bell Canada’s plan to air sports exclusively on its cell phone service has been smacked down by the country’s media watchdog, while the rich deal puts the future of hockey on pubcaster CBC in doubt when its NHL contract ends following the 2013-2014 season.

On Dec 9, Bell Canada and Rogers paid C$1.3 billion ($1.2 billion) to acquire a 75% stake in Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, which owns the National Hockey League franchise and National Basketball Assn.’s Toronto Raptors, from the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. Both companies want the properties to feed free-to-air networks and pay TV channels, notably Bell’s TSN (The Sports Network) and the Rogers-owned Sportsnet.

The Maple Leafs draw the highest sports ratings because the team is located in the country’s most populated area.

“Bell and Rogers are mortal enemies, but what brought them together was a common interest in securing content, and their fear that an unfriendly media competitor would get it,” says Ian Morrison, spokesman for the watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.

CTV has long coveted these hockey rights, and Bell made it clear from the moment it took over the commercial broadcaster in fall 2010 that picking up prime sports properties was a key part of its plan for the web. The team ownership puts Bell and Rogers in a prime position to snare national rights to NHL games once the CBC deal expires.

The loss would be a major financial blow for CBC. The pubcaster pays a hefty sum for the property — industry insiders suggest an annual fee in the range of $100 million — but its “Hockey Night in Canada” on Saturdays is consistently its top-rated program. The CBC uses the ad money it rakes in from the NHL playoffs to fund pricey local drama fare.

In a statement, CBC executive VP of English services Kirstine Stewart congratulated Bell and Rogers, and noted that CBC has partnered with Rogers for the 2014 soccer World Cup and is preparing a bid for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics with Bell. Tellingly, she made no mention of NHL rights.

But Bell’s strategy of spinning sports content to fans via smart phones and laptops has taken a blow. A couple of days after the Maple Leafs deal was announced, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission ordered Bell to cancel its exclusive deal to stream NHL and NFL games to its Bell Mobility subscribers and open up the properties to competitors within a month.

“Canadians shouldn’t be forced to subscribe to a wireless service from a specific company to access their favorite content,” says CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein.

The CRTC examined the deal after cell-phone service provider Telus complained it was unable to negotiate with Bell on rights to hockey and football games. In September, the CRTC ruled that big media firms would not be allowed to control exclusive access to content on different platforms, and that they would have to make this content available to their competitors. “You shouldn’t have to go to one supplier to get a particular type of programming,” Morrison says.

BCE, banking on sports to drive its mobile service, says it likely will challenge the ruling.

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