Rogers Communications Inc. is getting more ice time.
The company will announce on Friday that it will make Toronto Maple Leafs games available on the Web to its digital cable subscribers, who can get access to the Rogers on Demand Online platform.
It's another step for the cable, Internet and mobile provider in a larger strategy to push its sports content and offer viewing options on more devices to keep customers within its system. Last summer, Rogers began offering games from the baseball team it owns, the Blue Jays, online.
Last March, it began offering a handful of Leafs games from the team's own cable channel, Leafs TV, on the Web. Now, regular season Leafs games that Rogers broadcasts on its Sportsnet cable channel will be streamed live online for a broader range of subscribers. Rogers had to negotiate with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE) for extra digital rights, and is now attempting to do the same with competing networks, such as TSN, which have the rights to the remaining Leafs games, and other sports content. The Leafs content does not include mobile, for now.
"Sports is a big focus for us," said David Purdy, Rogers vice-president of video products. "The reason we bought the Jays was that we felt that in the digital world there was going to be increased migration … to on-demand viewing. With sports, it's one of the few things you have to watch live for it to have real value."
Negotiations with competitors may have become easier, thanks to a recent decision by Canada's broadcast regulator.
Last month, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission told cable and satellite companies that also own TV stations that they could not hoard televised sports and other shows that air on their channels, to make them exclusive on mobile devices or online only for their own TV and wireless subscribers.
Those other players have also dabbled in digital offerings. Sportsnet rival TSN, which is owned by BCE Inc., has been offering select events, such as Wednesday night NHL games and CFL matches, for free on TSN.ca. Sports events, including a controversial exclusive deal for NFL Sunday Ticket on mobile phones, are also part of Bell's Mobile TV package.
Vidéotron Ltée also has an extensive Web service, Illico Web, which is limited to its cable subscribers and offers live streams of its new sports channel, TVA Sports, as well as NBA TV Canada, which is also owned by MLSE.
MLSE does its own streaming of Leafs games on its Leafs TV website – including those that are also broadcast on Sportsnet – and on mobile phones. It has been experimenting with pricing schemes for digital viewing.
"We want to have these services authenticated to our cable channels," said Chris Hebb, senior vice-president of broadcast and content for MLSE. "We have Leafs TV, and Raptors TV and GolTV. We're not looking to cannibalize the cable system. … We see it [the Web and mobile devices]as a complementary form of distribution," he said.
Sports content is lucrative and hotly contested, and the price for television rights is rising.
"Sport [is]a big part of our culture – that you were there, you saw it," noted Brian Cooper, president of S&E Sponsorship Group, which consults with corporations such as Bank of Nova Scotia and SiriusXM Canada on their marketing in sports media. "There's nothing like sports that will drive passion, and make someone pay more to upgrade to a different package or platform, to follow their favourite team."