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Shoalts: Did TSN’s overconfidence scuttle deal with NHL?

There is some disagreement over the details of how it all happened, but a lot of people connected to the negotiations for the new Canadian NHL television contract think it was a question of attitude as much as the dollars behind the NHL's decision to dump BCE Inc. and TSN for Rogers Communications Inc. and Sportsnet.

Separate sources say when negotiations opened between the NHL and TSN to extend its contract for the broadcast rights in Canada, executives from the all-sports cable network and its parent company could have showed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman a little more respect. Instead, sources say, the message delivered to Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly was TSN carried the NHL's water for many years and the network was prepared to pay only so much to carry on the relationship – so the league should sit down and sign a contract.

For example, sources say, BCE president and chief executive officer George Cope never became involved in the negotiations. At the same time, Rogers president and CEO Nadir Mohamed played a "very" important role in the talks, according to someone close to Bettman. Those who know Bettman say he has a keen idea of how important the NHL is to certain businesses and markets.

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Also, Bettman takes a dim view of those who do not share that view – especially those who are supposed to be partners of the league.

Anyone who thinks otherwise should look back to the summer of 2005, when the NHL ended its lockout of the players and ESPN's cable television contract for games in the United States expired. With no other bidders in sight, ESPN offered Bettman $30-million (U.S.) per season for the rights, down from $70-million, and was not exactly polite about it.

Bettman told the network to stuff it and was widely criticized for handing the U.S. rights package to Comcast Corp.'s Outdoor Life Network (which morphed into Versus before Comcast bought NBC Universal and renamed the channel NBCSN). Bettman later parlayed that relationship into the NHL's current U.S. TV deal with NBC for 10 years at a total of $2-billion.

In other words, as many a negotiator can tell you: you trifle with Bettman at your peril. He is a merciless, smart negotiator who never forgets a slight.

This is not to say Cope and his team of executives treated Bettman and the NHL with a great degree of arrogance.

Sources on the NHL side argue the commissioner did not make his decision in a fit of pique, and he feels BCE took the negotiations seriously. But some familiar with the dealings say the TSN crowd could have been a little more respectful of the NHL and its power with Canadian hockey fans.

When Mohamed and his team of Rogers poo-bahs (led by Keith Pelley and Scott Moore) came at Bettman and Daly with all kinds of ideas about new programming, leveraging new technology, plus a total of $5.2-billion in rights fees over 12 years, it got their attention.

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By last week, talks got to the point where the Rogers executives told Bettman they wanted a decision quickly, since they were putting up an unprecedented amount of money and wanted to settle the matter. At that point, sources say, even though Bettman and Daly felt in the end BCE would probably match the $5.2-billion on the table, they went with Rogers.

So when Bettman insisted at Tuesday's news conference to announce the deal that it was "definitely not" about the money, he was not being disingenuous as some of us cynics thought.

Follow me on Twitter:

@dshoalts

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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