There’s big money to be made from our insatiable appetite for the Leafs, Raptors, Jays and TFC. That’s why the competition in the broadcast booth is getting just as heated as any athletic contest. A report from multiple battlefronts in Toronto’s fiercest media war—TSN vs. Sportsnet.
While any battle between two rival sports broadcasting entities would be charged with competitive fire, this one burns especially bright because the companies’ histories are so closely intertwined—Sportsnet was launched in 1998 by CTV, which sold the network to Rogers when it acquired the more established (and prestigious) TSN just a few years later.
For a decade, both companies operated out of CTV’s Agincourt headquarters at 9 Channel Nine Court, where their offices were separated by a parking lot. Over the years, “crossing the parking lot” became the colloquial term for making a leap that often only went one way. From the smaller Sportsnet, on- and off-air talent “moved up” to TSN, considered by most observers to be the big leagues.
Now, in its 14th year of operation, Sportsnet’s stint as the little brother has officially come to an end. TSN increased its Toronto profile by launching TSN Radio 1050 in April, but over the past 18 months it’s been cash-infused Sportsnet (now operating out of Rogers’ Bloor Street campus) that’s put on the major push across every platform. It has launched the magazine, purchased new specialty channels, brought in a slew of on-air talent (including ex-Globe scribes Brunt and Michael Grange, and former anchor Hazel Mae, who returns from a seven-year sojourn south of the border) and undergone a complete corporate rebranding, which rolled out in October.
Bob McCown (right) hosts Sportsnet’s radio juggernaut Prime Time Sports.
It’s all happened under the direction of former TSN boss Keith Pelley, who jumped ship to become president of Rogers Media last year, then quickly recruited CBC Sports boss Scott Moore to head up the Sportsnet revamp. Moore believes the recent push will bring about the culture change Sportsnet needs to overtake TSN in the ratings.
“We want to be the number one sports media brand in Canada in the next five years,” he says. “We choose those words very carefully, because we’re going to be a brand on a bunch of different platforms.”
He uses the magazine to illustrate his point.
“We’re the only sports media outlet in Canada that could really do justice to Sportsnet magazine, which we’re really proud of. We think that’s a great addition to the brand—to call it a brand extension would be an insult to the people who put it out, because it’s a quality piece of journalism. But just the perception of Sportsnet magazine in and of itself has probably done more to raise the profile of the Sportsnet brand in the last couple of months than anything else we’ve done.”
It’s telling that when Moore talks about the changes he’s made to the company, he talks a lot about perception. Because aside from re-arranging the desk chairs and renovating the studios, there isn’t much else Moore can do at the moment to ramp up the network’s athletic content—deals for every major sporting event are locked in at one network or the other for the time being.
And while Sportsnet’s ratings have climbed a bit since all the changes went into effect (Blue Jay games were up 17 per cent in 2011, for example), TSN is still riding a comfortable lead on the strength of its uniquely Canadian package of content: the CFL, World Junior Hockey Championship, Canadian Curling Association and, of course, national weeknight NHL games featuring Canadian teams.
Sportsnet has responded to TSN’s concerted effort to wrap itself in the flag by leaning heavily on Rogers-based entities: witness its reliance on the Rogers-owned Toronto Blue Jays, Rogers Cup tennis and the Buffalo Bills in Toronto series. The network’s lineup also boasts regional NHL coverage, the complete baseball playoffs, select soccer matches from the English Premier League, a newly-signed four-year deal with UFC and, on Sportsnet 590 The FAN, the flagship show Prime Time Sports hosted by the highly rated curmudgeon Bob McCown.
Moore says he’s pleased by the recent bump in ratings but admits that the familiar faces of high-profile analysts can only take the network so far. It’s the popularity of the games that drives viewership and, with so much competition, it’s of course impossible to broadcast every nail-biting championship game.
Hazel Mae, anchor of Sportsnet Connected.
It’s 5:58 p.m.—two minutes to showtime on a Tuesday night, and the Sportsnet Connected studio is surprisingly silent. Sports news anchor Brad Fay sits alone at the desk, quietly awaiting the show’s kickoff. A few feet to his right, hockey analyst Nick Kypreos is jotting down notes while looking at his iPad, preparing for a brief news hit about concussions in junior hockey. Minutes later, Kypreos will rush into an adjacent studio to join colleagues Daren Millard and Doug MacLean for the evening’s hockey broadcast. These guys cover the wild world of pro sports for a living, but the vibe in the room is anything but fun and games. It feels serious, focused, professional. Sportsnet is, after all, a network fighting to make up ground, working to change that all-important perception.
Sportsnet works all of its on-air employees at a frenetic pace. But perhaps the most active of them all is Kypreos, a former Maple Leafs grinder whose on-ice career ended after a devastating knockout punch left him unconscious in a puddle of blood in the middle of Madison Square Garden. Kypreos has found at Sportsnet the kind of integral role that always eluded him on the ice.
Kypreos has the giant fists of an NHL enforcer, but these days he looks more like a young CEO, with a sleek haircut and perfectly fitting blazers that distract the eye from the tiny scars on his face. Over the course of a few hours, the viewer can watch as he bounces from his midday radio show (simulcast on TV) to a quick-hit appearance on the network’s news show, Sportsnet Connected, to his main gig as a panelist on Hockey Central, the show that precedes Sportsnet’s regional NHL coverage.
John Shannon, Hockey Central analyst.
Tonight, with the Leafs hosting the Florida Panthers, Kypreos will handle this transition with ease, but it’s not always so smooth.
The war between TSN and Sportsnet hits its on-air climax each year in the dead of winter on the NHL’s trade deadline day. As the last chance for teams to swap players before the playoffs, it’s like Christmas morning for hockey nerds—both TSN and Sportsnet give it marathon (10-hour) coverage, and the competition between the two can get intense. It’s also a yearly source of comedy for viewers, who look on in bewilderment as the networks treat the announcement of every minor deal with all the gravity and intensity of a Wall Street stock market frenzy. Laptops and BlackBerrys are worked voraciously as over-excited analysts trip over each other in an effort to be the first to report deals as wholly insignificant as little-known Czech forward Petr Kalus being shipped to the Columbus Blue Jackets for future considerations.
On deadline day this past year, in the midst of conflicting views over the veracity of a breaking deal (Bryan McCabe being traded to the New York Rangers), Kypreos mistakenly sent out a tweet he believed was a private message. It included this memorable quip: “Those fuckers at tsn try to discredit me all the time. I’m really pissed!”
Almost instantly, the gaffe shifted the attention away from deadline day and made Kypreos the talk of the hockey universe. Or, more specifically, the butt of many jokes in the twitterverse. Still, his report ultimately proved to be accurate. While he regrets that the tweet went public, he assumes responsibility for what he wrote.
“At the time, I felt that way,” he says, his hands clasped together on the table. “It was an honest show of emotion for me, and people love that. I think people did appreciate the honesty. I learned a valuable lesson from it. I’m happy the damage was minimal.”
Sportsnet staffers monitor hockey games.
Across the board, the on-air talent refrain from taking shots at their rivals. But does Kypreos feel there’s a similarity between his hockey battles and this ongoing skirmish?
“Yeah, there is,” he admits. “I think what that tweet did was reiterate that we are in a very competitive environment. People who follow me, or people who follow the hockey world, see that competitiveness on a daily basis. That passion and emotion doesn’t just stay on the ice, it follows people like us in the broadcast world.”
The on-air personalities at both places sound sincere when they say they’re on friendly terms with their various counterparts, and in many cases they’ve spent time working side by side. But Kypreos’ tweet stands as a brief glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world of these off-ice hockey pros, and the kind of intense pressure they’re under to deliver scoops, even nano-scoops about Petr Kalus.
Next page: Inside TSN’s nerve centre