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and I can't do a thing about it

Monopoly…a Canadian way of doing business

A lot of you will look at the deal to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) by Bell and Rogers as simply a sports deal. You may be questioning what this means for the future of your favorite sports franchise, be it the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, TFC (the soccer team), maybe even the Toronto Blue Jays or one of the other six NHL teams in Canada. If you are a sports fan in this country and whether you love the dismal Toronto franchises, or love to see them fail year after year, there are real sporting implications…the truth though, whether you like to hear it or not, is that the future of the Leafs success on ice is mostly irrelevant in this deal.

The sale of MLSE is about content rights, who will control the television, radio, internet, mobile, etc. rights to the sporting content generated by these teams. In those terms this is a very frightening deal. Bell and Rogers are already the two most powerful media conglomerates in Canada. They own and manage, some would say mismanage, 80 television stations including all of the major sports stations on TV. They own 88 radio stations including all of the major sports-talk stations. They will pick up an additional three television licenses that MLSE owns. Together they own the vast majority of Canada’s online and mobile services. You think that it’s just Bell and Rogers? Think again. They also own Virgin, Solo, ChatR and Fido, and of course the largest satellite and cable companies too.

It’s hard to believe that a few short years ago it was deemed illegal for a cable or satellite company to own a television station, let alone a network. Thank you CRTC.

This concentration of power will be bad for everyone. While Bell and Rogers are busy divvying up the nation, they leave little room for their competition. This means they can do with sports content what they have done with mobile technology and cable and satellite delivery. They can control access and they can control price. All you have to do to see the future is to look at what these to companies have done in the past. Canadians pay among the highest rates in the world for mobile service and internet access, and Bell and Rogers continually strive to keep competition out through influence on government and regulatory bodies and with unfair discount practices that disappear when the competition is wiped out. To quote Ellen Roseman in the Toronto Star, “Rogers and Bell bludgeon customers into accepting a flurry of extra charges for wireless phones. They hit them with unexpected bills for data roaming and third party text messages.”

Roseman goes to describe some of the dirty practices of Bell and Rogers that include discounts that evaporate before the subscriber ever sees them, raised prices that make the discounts offered moot, and of course, some 8000 complaints from Canadians to the government last year about how they are being treated by telecommunications companies like Bell and Rogers.

I expect to see access to Toronto’s sports franchises on radio and television to change in three ways, first, you will see far more games on Rogers Sportsnet and TSN and expect to see fewer games in which let’s say the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets own the rights. Why pay the owners of a third party NHL club when you can pay yourself and fill the same amount of air time? Second, I see fewer opportunities for non-MLSE affiliated channels like CBC and Global to get the rights to the most popular sports entertainment. Finally, I see the possibility of a new pay channel that replaces Leafs-TV and Raptors-TV with a new sports channel that forces the public to pay big subscription fees to gain access to games that will no longer be available on any other channel, think MSG Network (Madison Square Gardens) or YES Network (Yankee Entertainment) two very profitable networks in the United States that control all of the most popular sports franchises in the New York City area.

Lastly I want to make a point about the way sports journalism will be affected. Since the owners of MLSE will now control virtually all of the sports broadcast media who will be left to criticize the missteps and worse the arrogance of this new sporting monster?

Will the guys at The Fan or TSN Radio take on their corporate bosses? Will they lose jobs and be punished for doing so? Does anyone see the conflict of interest here? Does anyone at the competition bureau or the CRTC care?

In the past few months Rogers and Bell have been busy buying the services of dozens of the best print sports writers to fill slots on radio and television and to write for new magazines. Most have quit their print jobs like Stephen Brunt, some like Damien Cox keep a foot in both camps. It is my contention that just about every sports writer in Canada is at least partially beholden to either Bell or Rogers. Sure you may write for a local paper in Vancouver that’s owned by the Post group or an independent in Toronto like the Toronto Star, but you all supplement your income, your reach and your popularity with appearances on one of the Bell or Rogers sports television and radio channels. Do you want to blow your chances for more guest shots? I think not. So, when the Toronto Raptors decide to spend less money and refuse to sign a free agent that’s available and who might make the team competitive, or merely watchable, will you write about it or just keep it to yourself? When TFC charges more for tickets than Manchester United (this is already a fact) will you shout about it in your column or is discretion a better road to take? For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Globe and Mail, which should stop calling itself Canada’s national newspaper, barely noticed this story. Why?

Sports journalism is for the most part an oxymoron in Canada. The last bastions were the daily newspapers in the major cities. Bell and Rogers have figured out how to co-opt even this small amount of opposition. Now it can only get worse.

Canadians in general and sports fans in particular will be the big losers if this deal is allowed to go through. The only way to stop it is if all Canadians get up of their backsides and scream at their political representatives. There’s one thing more powerful than the money and influence Bell and Rogers can and do wield, that is the threat of losing the next election.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , ,

23 Responses

  1. James Wicks says:

    Let me see if I understand this correctly.

    One company owns the baseball team, and the stadium where the baseball team plays, the TV sports network that airs highlights from the baseball team, the cable company that you use to watch the baseball game, and the wireless provider that you use to call your friends that you got tickets to the big game?!

    Seriously?
    And Canadians put up with this?!
    Is someone up there on crack?

    • hlbtoo says:

      Now Jim that same company will also own the hockey team, the basketball team, the soccer team and the arena. Oh, and their new partners in those teams: the other guys who own the TV stations, the phone system, the internet providers and the satellite delivery system…even someone on crack would think that’s nuts.

    • Wing Nip says:

      Uhhh..it’s not only Canadians. YES and MSG in the US is a perfect example pretty much the exact same arrangement.

      • hlbtoo says:

        Not quite Wing…they don’t own the delivery systems: satellite, cable, mobile, internet. If T Mobile or Comcast think their asking price is too high, they can refuse to carry their content. Here the content prices will be set by the team’s owners, you know, the cable, satellite, mobile and internet companies.

  2. Louis Cooper says:

    Reading Saturday’s Globe and Mail report on the sale/purchase of MLSE, the final paragraph in the sidebar quoting Bell’s George Cope has me wondering. Cope says watching sports live was the drive behind the buy. I wonder if the demographics are showing even dedicated sports fan will continue to watch live – more so since reading the two comments above. I think “live” viewing on whatever platform Bell/Rogers come up with is fading fast and in some demographics gone completely. After some 50 years in news and television news I believe live viewing for entertainment programs, news and sports is fading – assuming people still actually watch television on a television set any more! Bell/Rogers should stop and think about why people a getting rid of their landline phones [and there a age-groups which have NEVEr owned a landline!]. That demographic is also not watching television. Most are watching Netflix movies on their computer routed through their 48-inch LED TV. They don’t care about anything being offered on television any more.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Louis, I watch a lot of programming that’s not live, but maybe because of my age, though I doubt it, I can only watch sports live.

  3. Louis Cooper says:

    The last “event” my wife and I watched live was the Royal Wedding last April. Every “entertainment” program we watch we record and watch at our leisure. We also fast forward through the commercials and the interstitials and station/network promos. Fortunately, most of the programs we record and then watch are from TVO and Knowledge and, sometimes, PBS. But TVO and PBS are letting “announcements” take up more and more air time. My finger is poised over the fast forward button. Sports holds no interest for either of us. While I can accept older viewers want their sports hits live, I still believe there is a growing portion of the population which still, occasionally watches television but on a “device”. In many instances I believe that device is a computer linked to a TV set. And it’s true that Bell/Rogers also provide the internet service which akes live-streaming possible so they have a complete monopoly on event sites, programming events, delivering events and when and how. And, as you’ve said many times before, the CRTC remains asleep at the switch. It appears blind to this concentration of all the elements in two hands. I’m sure the Harper Government, as it likes to be called, is hugging itself as all this “control” is going to bounce back on the CBC and take it down even further. Eric Severide’s belief of being nibbled to death by ducks becomes more real each day.

  4. The lack of real investigative sports journalism in Canada (aside from Dowbiggin and perhaps one or two others) will continue to slide under this new ownership model. The fact that the most powerful reporting on the death of Derek Boogaard was done by the NY Times and a Canadian news outlet is significant. And depressing.

  5. Bill Murphy says:

    I have been complaining to the CRTC and Federal MP’s for nearly 10 years about this gross take-over of virtually all
    of our media in Canada.

    The CRTC and Competetion Bureau are both gutless bodies that just “bow” to the very Corporations they are supposed to regulate…

    CTV and Shaw, formerly Can-West spend over $850 mil a year buying Amercian programs but claim they can’t afford to do local news!

    Thank God for CBC & TVOntario….

    Bill

  6. James Wicks says:

    After the great piece you wrote on our friend, Bruce Dowbiggin, perhaps this is an issue he’d like to take up.
    Or how about Peter Mansbridge and his Nationals? Maybe this is a story up their alley.
    It would seem that this bizarre game of monopoly could, potentially, have disastrous consequences.
    I, for one, can’t see how Canadians benefit by corporate titans playing, ‘I’m the King of the mountain.’

  7. […] mainstream media commentators take this stand, but did find some sympathy among bloggers such as Medium Close Up. This concentration of power will be bad for everyone. While Bell and Rogers are busy divvying up […]

  8. Farmpunk says:

    I agree – a sport can only really be watched live. Then again, hockey is much better to watch on TV than in real life. Live sports are the last bastion of legacy TV, appointment TV, and advertisers love a captive audience.

    I don’t watch sports outside of hung over winter Sundays when I’ll indulge in the circus that’s the NFL. I think hockey has been manufactured as Canada’s national sport. We’re told about its importance so often that it then becomes accepted. The intense focus on, say, the World Juniors, is creepy.

    I don’t accept this national story that’s been forced on me. I think hockey sucks. On the real person level the sport, for kids, is disgustingly expensive and increasingly elitist.

    So I agree with this post. This deal is not about sports. This is about money and control. And Rogers and Bell know that a certain number of people will pay whatever price to watch hockey on TV. They will pay even more if its the Leafs. It’s these consumers that Rogers and Bell are after. The companies know these people exist, they have advertisers who will gladly pay for access to those eyeballs.

    As for sports journalism. Read Dave Zirin. There is no equivalent in Canada.

  9. George Jamieson says:

    I was visited by a ghost who gave me this dream of the future.

    After the next federal election our Brilliant Leader (the titles “Great” and “Beloved” being taken) will sell the CBC to MLSE. Searching for a smoother acronym than MLSEBC, the new owners will re-brand the company as the CRBC — the Canadian Rogers-Bell Corporation.

    Someone might point out those initials have been used before. The new CRBC president, Kevin O’Leary, will say, “that was then, this is now. You keep looking backward, the future will run you down.”

    Don Cherry will become the vice-president of communications. He will move into a suite of offices on the 5th floor of the Broadcasting Centre in Toronto. This will become known as the Harold Ballard Complex. Cherry will note with delight that he can look down on the Barbara Frum Atrium.

    That guilty pleasure will not last, however. The CRBC will decide to rename the atrium, and will hold an auction for the rights.

    Jim Treliving, the understated Dragon, will win, because he puts in the lowest bid. The CRBC will have to pay him a mere 2 million, renovate the space, and put up signs proclaiming the Mr. Lube Atrium. The renovations will include several bays for oil changes.

    By this time Don Cherry will have endured a series of strokes — brought on, he claims, by one too many sidelong glances from Ron McLean, while they were co-anchors of The National. As vice-president emeritus, Cherry will appear only at the CRBC annual meeting and the Stanley Cup final.

    The chair of the CRBC board, Peter Kent, will create an award in Cherry’s name. It will be a cup inscribed with the motto, “You can put too many men on the ice, but you can’t put too many men in the hospital.”

    The new vice-president of communications, George Strombouloupolous, will be the first recipient of this award.

    I wish I knew what I ate to bring on that dream. An undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. In modern broadcasting, as in so many other pursuits, there’s more of gravy than the grave.
    Happy holidays.
    GJ

    • hlbtoo says:

      That kind of clairvoyance, George, has to come from a higher power…you have to be channeling Real Caouette…

      • George Jamieson says:

        Actually, I thought I was channeling Kim Jong-il, and I fear I might be the cause of his demise.
        He would have known right away that my reference to his title was incorrect. The Supreme Leader, formerly the Dear Leader, knows all things at all times.
        The agitation must have been too much for him. His heart, brain, and several valves and sphincters would have gone nucular in seconds.
        I am sorry. The burden of guilt will overshadow my Christmas, and Christmases yet to come. It may be lifted if the Great Successor adopts the title Beloved Leader and forgives me. Anybody know the North Korean word for “shrive”?
        gj

  10. Ibrahim Imiru says:

    I lost faith in the ability of sports journos to report objectively on pro teams a long time ago. Why risk pissing off the owner and getting banned from the building?

    I would say the same thing about business reporting – much of it seems to be a P.R. exercise – I wouldn’t expect much critical reporting from them, either.

    Maybe my expectations have become dulled over the years, but I just don’t expect to see critical reporting from the entertainment, sports and business reporters.

    Most of the great journalism that I’m seeing these days is from the news departments.

    If the day ever comes when news reporters become co-opted, then it’s all over.

    • George Jamieson says:

      It is a delight to see your optimism about news departments. However, more than a few news reporters have been co-opted, and it’s not a new phenomenon.

      Anyone recall when the anchor of The National, one Peter Kent, made a written intervention to the CRTC? The CBC license was being renewed/reviewed, and Kent decided that was the right time to point out a too-cozy relationship between his news producers and the Prime Minister’s Office. Lucky for him, he enjoyed working in the Johannesburg bureau.

      Mercifully, most news departments differ from sports and commerce outlets. The news offices are not co-opted en masse, just a few reporters, editors, and publishers here and there. William Thorsell’s tiresome apologies for Brian Mulroney come to mind.

      Let’s start a chain. Name a news reporter who is or was working for interests beyond the strictly journalistic. This blog will reach a thousand pages by the end of the year. Then we can name journos who are honest and as objective as we can expect humans to be.

      GJ

  11. C. says:

    “It’s hard to believe that a few short years ago it was deemed illegal for a cable or satellite company to own a television station, let alone a network. Thank you CRTC.”

    I have written the CRTC on more than one occasion regarding this change. The cable provider now being the content producer and the recipient of cable fees and advertising money is definitely a conflict. CRTC call it’s
    vertical structuring. Lol. Then they allow the
    monopolies to report on how this practice is
    working in their favour. Talk about leaving the
    “fox in charge of the henhouse”!

  12. pw says:

    First it was liquor, now sports too? This is why the Canadian government is useless. Time and time again they’ve allowed monopolies to happen.

  13. […] shitty international cell phone data plan rules! We have to deal with unhealthy Roger/Bell monopolies, with Bell trying to hurt Canadians by being too fucking gluttonous (thankfully the CRTC was able […]

  14. eric roy says:

    it sucks. there should be a law against the monopoly. just another way for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. I imagine that politics get there cut from this monopoly for allowing this too happen. that’s the government standing up for the little guy. shady

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