Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Possible new TV coverage for CIS sports

I've been meaning to put this up for a while, but just didn't have the time. A couple weeks ago, I wrote a story for the Journal about two new proposed TV networks the CRTC is looking at. The first application is an initiative of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which wants to launch English and French channels focusing on amateur sports, called the Canadian Amateur Sports Network and RĂ©seau des sports amateur canadiens respectively. The second application is from the CBC for its own sports channel, which would also include an amateur sports component. Scott Moore, the executive director of CBC Sports, told me that their application proposed 35 per cent amateur content. Both applications are currently before the CRTC, and should soon enter the "gazetting" period, where the public and other companies can intervene for or against the new channels.

These applications are interesting because they may very well lead to more televised coverage of CIS sports. CIS Director of Marketing Peter Metuzals told me that the CIS has been in contact with the COC about their application, and the website for the proposed new channels lists CIS as a supporter. Steve Keogh, the COC's communications manager, told me that they're quite interested in televising university sports. CIS officials haven't yet had extensive discussions with CBC, but Moore also seemed quite receptive to the idea of televising university sports.
"I think it’s a great product that’s underexposed at the moment," he told me. "If we get the license, it’s certainly an area we’d look at."

Anyways, that's the recap of the article. There were some other interesting aspects I picked up from the interviews for it that we couldn't fit in due to space, so I figured I'd try and highlight the best ones here.

One thing I found particularly interesting was Keogh's comment that the COC would be interested in picking up some of the CIS sports that aren't currently televised, as well as possibly televising regular-season games in sports where only the championships are televised. "Our goal is to put a spotlight on sports that don’t already receive attention, but that doesn’t mean we won’t want a high-profile CIS event," he told me. That seems to fit with CIS chief executive officer Marg McGregor's comments that she'd like to see more regular-season games televised. "We were very happy with the quality of the coverage we got this year from various networks," she told me. "That being said, for sure we would like to see more games covered, and not just the championship games, but the lead-up games to build that audience, build that interest and build that excitement, particularly around certain games that are good rivalries and good matchups."

Both McGregor and Metuzals were quite clear that any coverage on the new networks would supplement existing coverage rather than replace it: CIS is locked into a deal with Sportsnet for coverage of the men's hockey championships for the next two years, and is currently negotiating a renewal of their agreement with The Score for various championships, including football and men's and women's basketball. In my mind, this is the right move: you don't want to throw away what you have, and as McGregor said, the quality of the coverage The Score and Sportsnet provided was quite high. It would certainly help expose university sport if they were able to get other games or championships on the air.

Both McGregor and Metuzals seem to highly value television as a means to expand university sport's presence and influence, which is good to see. Metuzals told me he wants to see as many CIS sports and matches televised as possible. "I would like to have as much distribution as possible in a variety of sports,” he said. McGregor said that the exposure they get from television is quite valuable. "TV is an excellent vehicle to promote what a great product university sport is," she told me.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both of the proposed new channels for those hoping to see more CIS sports. The COC bid would likely feature more university sport content, but it will probably have a harder time passing, as they're applying for mandatory carriage. As the Globe's William Houston pointed out in his column about the networks when they were first proposed, "A must-carry designation is difficult to receive." The CBC bid may also have difficulty passing, as it's closer to what's already offered by TSN, Sportsnet and The Score, and the companies that own those networks may file negative interventions. Another advantage if the COC bid passes is it would mean more revenue for CIS: the organization currently subsidizes some of the broadcasting costs of Sportsnet and The Score, but CASN's website states that it would pay all broadcasting costs, donate up to one-third of the advertising time to the organization involved and also establish an amateur sports fund that organizations like CIS could apply to. CASN isn't focused on commercial viability, as it would be primarily funded by the mandatory carriage fees: thus, it would also have an easier time covering lower-profile sports.

Ideally for university sports fans, both networks would be approved. Some have suggested that the two proposed networks are hurting each other's chances, but Moore didn't see it that way. "The CRTC may see fit to license one or both, but I don’t see them as being directly competitive," he told me. There's a point there, as the channels would have dramatically different focuses: the CBC one would probably feature some Raptors games, along with other professional sports, and it would also likely serve as a place to run more coverage of events like the Olympics and World Cup, where there's usually a lot going on at once. Both networks would be quite helpful for the exposure Canadian university sports: hopefully, the CRTC will recognize that.

Speaking of the CRTC, Keogh told me community support will be integral to the COC's bid. "What’s going to sell this to the CRTC is public support," he said. "If the Gaels want to be on the air, they’ll need to throw their support behind this. ... We’re asking the entire sports community, not just the CIS, to put their support behind this so we can make it a reality. There truly is a need for this. What parent won’t want to watch their sons’ or daughters’ events across the country in both languages? It presents such a great opportunity."

Public support will probably be necessary for both bids, particularly if the anticipated negative interventions by other sports networks materialize. The CRTC's final decisions could be made as early as the fall or as late as next year.

One final thought: Metuzals was very optimistic about the viability of CIS sports in a television marketplace. "The quality of play, the quality of the athletes is tremendous," he told me. "If you’re a hockey fan, and you love pure hockey, you should be watching university hockey, because next to the NHL, it’s the best. … Basketball, it’s the highest-quality basketball we have in the country for both men and women. If you like it and you enjoy it—and a lot of people are playing basketball in the country—this is the avenue. I think in years to come, we will have something similar to the NCAA tournament, or we should try and focus on that—not such a big monstrosity, but certainly the awareness and the interest that people have in the game and the various teams playing, it’s a great opportunity for us to build it."

Normally, I'd take his words on his own product with a grain of salt, as he is the marketing director: however, there are many outside sources talking about the quality of CIS sports these days. As I wrote about on The CIS Blog today, everyone from Darren Dreger to Don Cherry has talked about how good CIS hockey is. It's true in other sports, too: media personalities like Michael Grange of the Globedevoted significant time to covering the men's basketball tournament (and did a great job of it too), and the NCAA-champion Kansas Jayhawks are coming north to take on Carleton and McGill this summer, while soccer only has pros like Srdjan Djekanovic and former NCAA Division I stars like Israel Jones. It's looking like a pretty good time for CIS sports, even with the threat of the NCAA still looming.

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