The most significant sports media stories in 2011 as seen by Usual Suspects:
Bell/Rogers buy majority interest in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment
The result? We now have programmers owning the programming, plus the systems to deliver that programming. In this case, it's the most valuable single media property in the country – the Toronto Maple Leafs on TV and mobile sources. The deal also included rights to the Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC and the Toronto Marlies.
This massive concentration of influence (we have yet to hear from the competition commissars) was a defensive move to prevent potential new buyers from creating a new system to deliver the Maple Leafs broadcasts outside Rogers's and Bell's existing model. The new owners are now only beginning to deal with the ramifications from this marriage.
Despite the high fives, the sides still don't like each other. The suits assured us that it's competition as usual. Knowing the corporate rivalry between Bell and Rogers, this is believable. But having agreed to partner on this, what will Bell/Rogers do when the national NHL TV rights (currently owned by CBC) come up for tender in the next couple of years? Why blow your brains out on a bid if you can partner again in a cozy deal?
Finally, what does it mean for editorial impartiality? Again, the early noises were "hands off," but Leafs general manager Brian Burke now gets a cheque from the same bosses who employ his critics. What happens when he gets in high dudgeon? Whom do the bosses placate? The situation is ripe for conflict. No doubt Chinese walls will be erected, but until they're tested the public has a right to remain skeptical.
Concussions in hockey were already a problem, but when Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby was concussed on the first day of 2011 at the Winter Classic, it precipitated a year dedicated to media scrutiny of head traumas. Combined with the deaths of three NHL players, Crosby's serious injury (he's played just a handful of games since) thrust the issue in the public's face and removed the NHL's wiggle room on concussions.
Newspapers and TV networks dedicated significant resources to a condition called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). A frustrated Don Cherry melted down in his first Coach's Corner of 2011-12 over ex-players suggesting concussions might be fight-related. And a New York Times feature on deceased fighter Derek Boogaard exposed hockey's dirty little secrets to the American market.
While traditional sports media lost ground on many fronts, long-form sports journalism had a great year. ESPN spun Bill Simmons off into his own site, Grantland (after Grantland Rice), which commissions top writers to indulge the 2,500-word format. A mixture of insight, humour and gambling advice, Grantland raised the bar across the business.
Likewise, Sportsnet introduced a glossy new bi-weekly publication to extend the Rogers brand. A synthesis of glossy photos and articles from noted Canadian writers, it's a bold experiment that gambles that the company's high profile in sports can be extended to the magazine rack in a challenging era for print media.
TSN 1050 Radio starts in April
TSN's challenge to Sportsnet 590 The Fan's supremacy in Toronto sports radio seemed more significant before the MLSE machinations (see above). But with TSN Radio and The Fan splitting the Maple Leafs' 2012-13 radio rights equally between the stations, TSN lost the chance to distinguish itself from the established heavyweight. Hard to see where TSN goes with this until Bob McCown leaves The Fan, not that that's imminent.
CFL TV ratings plummet
There were good reasons the league's average TV ratings on TSN/RDS went from 876,000 in 2010 down to 700,000 in 2011. The collapse of the Toronto Argonauts and Saskatchewan Roughriders led the way. But with the 100th Grey Cup celebrations set for Toronto next November, and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon angling for a new contract, the league needs to create some momentum fast.
CBC loses FIFA World Cup soccer to CTV after 2015
Tough blow for CBC, losing soccer's greatest TV property after carrying the last few men's and women's tournaments. It's almost accepted the network will lose the NHL national rights eventually; soccer was the likely substitute. Not that CBC was bitter; Kirstine Stewart, executive vice-president, CBC English Services, blew a public kiss to Bell, which owns CTV Inc., on its purchase of the shares of the Leafs. After all, the two networks are partners in bidding for the next Olympics TV rights package.
NBC/Comcast merger/HBO's 24/7
The merger of NBC and Comcast was important for the NHL's profile in the United States, which benefited from the cross-platform opportunities afforded by NBC's array of channels. NBC also boosted Golf Channel's profile, too, as it added its network logo to the title. If NBC Universal decides to use NBC Sports Channel (formerly Versus) to challenge ESPN, it could do even more for hockey's profile. 24/7's second year also boosted hockey in the U.S., with Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov becoming a crossover star.
Usual Suspects discovered the tweet possibilities of the social network this year. Apparently so did many others. By year's end, Twitter had become an accepted, even vital part of doing business in sports journalism. Follow your favourite journos, comedians, philosophers and Metta World Peace. The world in 140 characters. What's not to like?