Vultures ready to pick over the bones of the HNIC season

While Canadians mourn the absence of Hockey Night in Canada, other media outlets from cinema and World Wrestling Entertainment Canada (WWE) to specialty and conventional nets are poised to make a grab for the displaced audience and ad dollars.

While Canadians mourn the absence of Hockey Night in Canada, other media outlets from cinema and World Wrestling Entertainment Canada (WWE) to specialty and conventional nets are poised to make a grab for the displaced audience and ad dollars.

For the young male demographic, Cineplex Odeon is pushing a Movie Night in Canada alternative to advertisers. WWE has pulled out research that indicates crossover between fans of professional wrestling and hockey to support its 16 hours a week of television, including Monday Night RAW and Smackdown on Thursdays, its magazines, over 300 live events, and 14 pay-per-view TV events.

Broadcasters that traditionally rely on hockey for a big part of their annual schedule have been scurrying to fill in their skeds with alternate programming. Right now, they’ve planned for the short-term, at least to the end of this year. In the case of TSN and Sportsnet, it’s with other sports programming.

Sportsnet is getting deep into Major League Baseball and the World Series during October followed by NBA Games and the Toronto Raptors. In addition, it has programmed the American Hockey League, the Canadian Hockey League (junior hockey), Classic Regional NHL Hockey, the National Lacrosse League (regional coverage of the Vancouver Ravens, Calgary Roughnecks and Toronto Rock), Grand Slam Curling, English Premier League Tripleheaders (new this year), Spanish Prima Liga soccer, and Canadian men’s soccer.

Joe Hurley, VP of sales for Sportsnet, says this year many big advertisers stayed on the sidelines waiting for the NHL owners and players to complete their talks before committing their ad dollars and now the vultures are at the door ready to pounce at the goldmine of hockey dollars normally slated for CBC as well as for the specialty sports nets.

‘We decided we had to take a deep position with something to protect ourselves,’ says Hurley. ‘The first we did was get into bed with Major League Baseball. The (programming) problem wouldn’t really start until October and now we’ve got that covered. It’s a bit of a gamble because if hockey had come back, it would have been a scheduling nightmare because of the divisionals, the league championship, and the World Series.’

November and December include properties such as the NBA games and if there is still no NHL by January, Hurley says Sportsnet has a deal in principle with the Swedish Elite League, which a number of NHL players are going to sign with during the lock-out.

Hurley says there’s lots of choice for advertisers looking for a male audience and wanting a chance to be involved in other strong sports brands. Some of those opportunities are with the Web site, which will mirror on-air activity with pools and forums matching into the baseball, basketball, and other coverage. He says online fan forums are a big draw for young males who enjoy interacting with Sportsnet journalists and sometimes getting their comments quoted on air.

TSN is taking a similar approach. It has some hockey on its sked with Classic Canada Cup games on Tuesdays and Molson That’s Hockey followed by Classic NHL games on Wednesday. The net also has lined up NBA, NFL, PGA Tour golf, boxing and the World Series of Poker.

CBC, which is expected to take a mammoth hit estimated to be up to $60 million for a whole season without HNIC, is primarily slotting movies in its place starting Oct. 16. The broadcaster also has about 50 CBC staffers affected by the NHL player lock-out, including 36 CBC Sports employees and freelance contributors across the country. Those who are involved strictly in hockey broadcasts such as colourful Canadian icon Don Cherry, are free to contribute to other stations.

Steve Aronovitch, broadcast investment manager at Starcom Worldwide in Toronto, says no other sport has the reach in Canada that hockey does so buyers aren’t just going to divert their dollars into baseball or basketball.

Cinema has additional costly production elements involved so it’s unlikely an advertiser will use this as plan B unless it was already in the strategy. He says NFL football is a little more mainstream but that golf is not for reaching younger men while WWE is a different kind of environment altogether and not a direct match for hockey for most clients.

Aronovitch says: ‘Money that would have originally gone to hockey, especially if you want to reach younger men, will go into specialty – TSN and Sportsnet. If you still want reach with some conventional properties, some of the new reality programs – The Benefactor and The Contender appeal to younger men.’

Clients with an environment-based strategy will have already planned on TSN and Sportsnet for young men and the online components could add some for younger demos, but Aronovitch says a baseball sponsorship with an online piece isn’t going to completely make up for the reach that live hockey delivers.