Damn! We all knew that CBC's days a major player in sports were to be numbered with the Rogers purchase of NHL hockey for the next 12 years, but it still did not make reading todays news any easier:
It was a very difficult day today for all those affiliated with CBC as it was announced that 657 positions will be eliminated over the next two years in order to ensure a balanced budget. Likely those cuts will hit sports very hard as the CBC release indicates that CBC will not bid on professional sports against private broadcasters, nor will it cover events unless they break even. Special projects like the upcoming summer Olympics and the Pan Am games will be covered creatively (read as economic as possible).
With NHL hockey off the market for the next 12 years, the options for moneymaking professional sports was fairly limited anyways. The CBC broadcasted a handful of Raptors games some years back and the ratings were mediocre. No Vancouver Grizzlies also hurt the bottom line. In fact, even this year, the Raptors most successful on-court, the ratings still lag behind hockey. Remember when Jim Hughson did a fine job of calling several Blue Jay games for the CBC? Again, the audiences were not there, not helped by the Blue Jays mediocre on field performance and with the death of the Expos in 2004, there was no Canadian alternative. How about TFC? CBC went down that road a couple of years back, but it was very clear that Canada was not going to embrace a team from Toronto on a national level. Now with Vancouver, and Montreal added to the league, soccer has become a better property to own, but building a substantial national audience would take time, and that is something the CBC really cannot afford, not that they would anyway. CBC did try some American hockey league games as well, focusing on the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Toronto Marlies and the then Manitoba Moose first and foremost and then the afflilates of the other Canadian teams secondarily. That too did little in the ratings, though the production and on-air delivery was very good.
There was a time when CBC was the major player in sports with CFL Football, amateur competition leading up to the Olympics and hockey dominating the airwaves. Times have changed and the CBC can ill-afford to pay high stakes bidding games with tax payer money.
The bottom line is that CBC has been unable to build a devoted national following outside of Hockey Night in Canada, and for the next four years all they will provide for the NHL is a national distribution channel and studio space. All costs and profits borne from hockey will go into the Rogers coffers. After four years we may see the last of the classic red, blue and white symbol for Hockey Night. Rogers may choose not to renew the deal to put hockey on CBC. I'm not looking forward to the day my channel guide will show something other than hockey on the CBC.
Lots of high profile names will likely be named in the coming weeks. Some will not be a surprise as they either been named to Rogers NHL coverage, or strong rumours seemed to dictate. Elliote Friedman, Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson are likely headed to Rogers, so their names will likely be among the cuts. Same goes for Don Cherry. Ron MacLean is an interesting one. He has done lots of non-sports/hockey stuff with the CBC and we know he has been hired by Rogers. Will CBC keep him for their Olympic or Pan Am coverage, or will he be phased out? Same with the talented Andi Petrillo. A natural fit for Rogers, Petrillo did very well in the host chair in Sochi and might be sought out for a bigger role. I worry about signature voices like Mark Lee , Steve Armitage and Bob Cole. This might be the final year for the venerable signature pipes of Bob Cole. The octogenarian still has that big game call, but there may not be room at Rogers Lee, who broadcasts hockey, is integral to the Olympics. Armitage reminded viewers why he is a premier signal caller with his wonderful work in Sochi. All theses names, and many more are up in the air.
I have always maintained that my dream job was to work at Hockey Night in Canada. I have hockey night books, jackets, hats, toques and t-shirts, all in support of the public broadcaster. If I did not work in hockey, I would love to work for The Fifth Estate, the best investigative program out there. Today, I feel like I am delivering a eulogy for a friend. I hope that it is not the case and that CBC can play a role in sports going forward, be it for the Olympics, or other amateur competition. There is still life and vibrancy for CBC in covering sports. I hope that they, and the fine broadcasters that work for them, can continue to ply their trade in the years going forward.
Short term, however, the plan going forward severely restricts sports coverage and that is why today is a sad day on Front Street.