Too many men on the ice?

It's a sports fan's dream. There are now more sports channels on television than there are straight-up news networks in Canada. In fact, thanks to the launch of the digitals last September, there are now a dozen of 'em, compared to just a handful of news-only channels - and that doesn't include the sports segments in the regular newscasts. It would appear the jocks have taken over.

It’s a sports fan’s dream. There are now more sports channels on television than there are straight-up news networks in Canada. In fact, thanks to the launch of the digitals last September, there are now a dozen of ‘em, compared to just a handful of news-only channels – and that doesn’t include the sports segments in the regular newscasts. It would appear the jocks have taken over.

Ten months ago, a triumvirate of English-language sports stations – TSN, Rogers’ Sportsnet and The Score – ruled the analogue tube, along with Quebec’s TSN equivalent, RDS. Enter the diginets: nine new sports-oriented digital channels, ranging from Leafs TV to WTSN to X-Treme Sports.

Through the wonders of convergence, only five companies control the 12 channels: Bell Globemedia owns TSN, ESPN Classic Canada, The NHL Network, WTSN, RDS, and RDS Info Sport; CanWest Global owns Fox Sports World and X-Treme Sports; Rogers Communications owns Sportsnet; Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment owns Leafs TV and Raptors NBA TV; and Headline Media Group owns The Score. So effectively the new channels are not so much introducing new competition as widening the field.

However, the question remains, does Canada really need 12 different sports stations?

‘I don’t think there are too many. The area we are all moving into is fragmentation, so I guess all these stations have their place,’ says Dennis Dinga, VP, director of broadcast buying at Toronto’s M2 Universal. ‘There is a small portion who will watch X-Treme Sports, as there is a group who will watch WTSN. But I think the real issue is the digitals versus the mainstream stations: there could be 20 stations, it wouldn’t matter.’

Dinga’s right. Currently, there are only four established sports brands on analogue TV, and their audiences dwarf those of the diginets. TSN leads the pack with an average minute audience of 106,000 persons 2+, followed by Sportsnet at 46,000, RDS with 27,000, and The Score with 22,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. After that, the digitals come in with comparatively tiny audiences of about 1,000 viewers each.

‘We’re just at the start of the wave. In the next five years, digital television adoption will grow, and Canada is already way outpacing everyone else,’ says Scott MacLeod, promotions director at Global Specialty Services.

But while the analogues may have nothing to fear for the time being, the addition of so many new entries has touched off a flurry of positioning as each tries to carve out a distinct niche on the dial.

MacLeod believes Fox Sports World, which focuses on international soccer, rugby and cricket, has chosen a strong niche, as has X-Treme Sports, which will air made-in-Canada productions along with programming sourced from Europe and Australia (there is currently no direct affiliation with the Netherlands’ Extreme Sports Channel). ‘In the short term, there are many nay-sayers, but this is a long term move. Fox is the driver, X-Treme Sports will ride the wave,’ he adds

The main focus for X-Treme right now is building awareness through aggressive sponsorship of events like Molson Canadian’s upcoming Snow Jam. The channel is also running TV spots that feature footage of some serious dives by bikers and boarders with slogans like ‘For those who like to do it and those who like to see ‘em get hurt,’ and ‘People were hurt for your amusement.’

For its part, Fox Sports is re-running the FIFA World Cup (which, according to Nielsen Media Research, garnered an average gross audience per match of 600,000 Canadians), and MacLeod points out that ‘soccer is the fastest-growing sport in Canada – more people are playing it than hockey.’

That may be true, but don’t try to tell either TSN or Sportsnet that hockey is losing ground in Canada’s sports landscape. For next season, both stations are hoping to break through the sports channel clutter by focusing their programming on the revered Canuck pastime.

TSN has picked up 90 NHL games (60 regular season and 30 post-season) in an attempt to turn the sports station into a hockey mecca. When ads start running in the coming months, the tagline will trumpet ‘Hockey Lives Here,’ and according to Adam Ashton, director of marketing for TSN, the station is planning some major changes to its hockey broadcast.

Right now, like the CBC and Sportsnet, the broadcast is based on the usual game analysis by a panel of experts, along with the standard player interviews and the occasional small feature on a player’s hometown or hobbies. However, come October, the revamped broadcast will be ‘free-flow,’ as Ashton puts it. The new host, Linda Freeman, and primary ‘telestrator,’ Pierre McGuire, will be encouraged to walk about the mini ice rink set (à la Citytv), and he hints that TSN might even play the occasional music video if it fits the feeling of the evening’s show.

‘Extensive viewer research tells us that [people] want to be entertained as well as just having information thrown at them,’ he explains. ‘[The broadcast] won’t just be analysis – our goal is to deliver young and fun programming. It will be more like a BreakfastTelevision feel – no one’s behind a desk.’

Bell Globemedia views its other sports holdings more as TSN brand extensions, says Phil King, SVP of programming, with the thinking being that as long as TSN remains on top, the others can ride its coat tails.

‘TSN is reaching its 20th year, and that gives us a huge advantage because everyone is familiar with the brand; it’s like a running head-start,’ he says. ‘We’re not really afraid of viewer fragmentation, if we were, we wouldn’t have launched three new stations last fall. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people always want more, and there’s enough product to go around.’

The majority of that product is still hockey, but Sportsnet believes it has the ammunition to blow TSN and its digital cousin, The NHL Network, off the dial.

Since launching four years ago, Sportsnet has tried to set itself apart as the only sports carrier with local broadcasts (Sportsnet East, Ontario, West and Pacific) – and even its tagline, ‘The Home team Comes First,’ speaks to its point of difference.

Compared to TSN’s 90 hockey games, Sportsnet will carry 168 collectively, including 45 Vancouver Canucks games, 48 Edmonton Oilers, 20 Calgary Flames, 15 Toronto Maple Leafs and 40 Ottawa Senators.

When David Ballingall, Sportsnet’s VP of marketing, was told of TSN’s new ‘Hockey Lives Here’ tagline he said: ‘To me, that rings a little shallow. No one has more hockey than Sportsnet, period.

‘But our strategy extends beyond hockey. We air the Toronto Raptors, lacrosse and we’re the dominant carrier of the Blue Jays. [The team is owned by Rogers Communications.] Baseball has some issues to work out but it’s still a very strong performer and there are only so many summer properties out there.’

While the analogues duke it out over who owns hockey, their digital counterparts still have some serious work to do building up audiences. At the moment, the main goal is to get total digital subscribership up from the current 2.9 million figure, but even within that pool, individual channels have to get the word out to confused audiences beset by the sports channel onslaught.

‘They still need to build awareness; they did a poor job of that last fall,’ says Dinga. ‘I imagine that nine out of 10 Canadians don’t even know there is a Leafs channel.’