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As Rogers circles the Jays, it’s tough to tell press from fans

You know those spoof ads for razors, the ones that mock the absurdity of the arms race between Gillette and Schick that sees them constantly adding to the number of blades in their razors? That's all I could think about during a Rogers Media Inc. press event on Wednesday, as I watched three of the company's executives beat their chests in boyish anticipation for next week's opening game of the Toronto Blue Jays' new season.

That's because, while most of us are still getting used to the idea of second-screen viewing – watching TV while tweeting, posting on Facebook, or chatting online – Rogers is touting the benefits of a so-called "five-platform" approach. In its model, each platform seamlessly promotes the others, and all work together to promote the Jays, which Rogers happens to own. It's a virtuous circle, Canadian media-style, though some would call it a vicious circle.

"We're the only five-platform sports brand in Canada," boasted Scott Moore, Rogers's president of broadcasting, referring to Sportsnet, the No. 2-rated group of sports channels in the country, behind Bell Media-owned TSN. "We have TV, radio, online, mobile, and publishing [print]. So we're able to do more with our sports content than anybody else in the country."

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In the past couple of years, Rogers has spent tens of millions of dollars beefing up its ownership of sports properties: buying the Grand Slam of Curling, snapping up rights to the Tour de France, international soccer, cricket, and others. Most notoriously, the company also jacked up the payroll of the Jays for this season by about $20-million. Starting on Opening Day next Tuesday, said Mr. Moore, "You're about to see the strategy in action."

In fact, the strategy has been in action for months now, way before Sportsnet magazine put the new Jays pitcher, R.A. Dickey, on the cover of its April 1 issue to promote a five-page feature with the sell line: "One-on-one with the most interesting man in the game."

Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, noted that, on the day the Jays signed Mr. Dickey last December, that evening's edition of Sportsnet's flagship news show Connected did 14 minutes on the knuckleballer's move from the Mets to Toronto, while "the competition, whose call letters I forget, did two minutes." And while it's true that viewers apparently were hungry for the coverage – Mr. Pelley said the episode of Connected pulled in 139,000 viewers while TSN's Sportscentre was seen by 79,000 – it's also true that spending more time covering the Jays directly helped drive demand for Jays tickets. And that money flows back to Rogers.

"Going in all-in early, you create the buzz," Mr. Pelley said. "The power of your own network can create the buzz of something. You've seen it on Sportsnet magazine, you've seen it on Sportsnet [TV]." He added: "Watch Sportsnet tonight, and see how long it takes before you see something Blue Jays. Makes sense, doesn't it?"

Rogers hopes that owning the content can help lift its non-media businesses. In recent days, the company has been running full-page newspaper ads proclaiming that, "This week, it pays to be a fan," which tell Rogers subscribers they can watch the Jays "live on your laptop, smartphone, or tablet," with its Anyplace TV app. "You can't do that with [Bell's] Fibe."

Mr. Pelley's enthusiasm may get equity analysts and shareholders excited, but it can make sports journalists – and regular sports fans – feel kind of icky. In the most recent issue of Sportsnet magazine, their marquee sports columnist Stephen Brunt wrote a fawning article about the great chemistry between the Dominicans playing for the Jays. (The column promoted a 30-minute special Mr. Brunt hosted for the TV network called Up Close: Dominican Blue Jays.) How are we to tell that he's applying any sort of critical eye to the subject?

Whenever these issues come up, Rogers asserts its editorial integrity by noting the critical comments made about its teams by Sportsnet personalities such as Greg Zaun and Bob McCown. Still, it's a short step from a media boss such as Mr. Pelley urging his network executives to give the Jays wall-to-wall coverage, and the toe-curlingly partisan play-by-play commentary that characterizes so much of the regional sports networks in the United States, which are often owned by the local teams.

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Rogers also owns 37.5 per cent of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Mr. Pelley has made it very clear that he would love to snatch away NHL games from the CBC when the rights come up for renewal next year. He might want to make it equally clear that, if he is successful, the tone of coverage won't disintegrate into pure boosterism.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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