Sportscasters initiate plan B – but NHL ad dollars go mainly to top scoring prime time

Once the plug was finally pulled on the possibility of even an abbreviated NHL season, sports broadcasters began implementing the final stages of plan B by filling in their spring schedules with replacement players such as racing, basketball, baseball, and junior, international, and vintage hockey.
Media buyers, on the other hand, had their own alternate plans - and they didn't call for pumping NHL dollars back into other sports programming. While the money pretty much remained with television, it was diverted away from sports and into top-rated prime time shows.

Once the plug was finally pulled on the possibility of even an abbreviated NHL season, sports broadcasters began implementing the final stages of plan B by filling in their spring schedules with replacement players such as racing, basketball, baseball, and junior, international, and vintage hockey.

Media buyers, on the other hand, had their own alternate plans – and they didn’t call for pumping NHL dollars back into other sports programming. While the money pretty much remained with television, it was diverted away from sports and into top-rated prime time shows.

Steve Aronovitch, broadcast investment manager at Starcom Worldwide in Toronto, says that advertisers that are looking strictly at sports properties can buy packages to hit their targets without NHL but the advertisers who used the NHL for its reach and quality of audience won’t going the results they’re looking for with other sports programming.

‘Obviously you’re going to want to go bigger in scope and try to get back larger audiences with alternative programming. That you can do with (top shows) on CTV and Global. You don’t necessarily have to put it into sports properties.’

Aronovitch adds, ‘This would certainly come into play with the hockey playoffs (spring season) but there’s a lot of strong programming during that time period. There will be some finales where you get a large audience and top ratings and you don’t have to buy hockey to do it.’

The media decisions were really made at the first hint of a hockey season in peril. The media schedules were set, negotiations were conducted, and deals done as if there would not be a hockey season at all. Of course, flexibility was built into the broadcast buys so money could be pulled out and put into hockey if the players and owners did reach an agreement.

Buyers had to make their ad deals at the beginning of the broadcast season to ensure reasonable rates. Holding dollars back until the hockey cancellation was official would mean not only much higher costs but also little or no availability of top programming.

Florence Ng, VP broadcast for ZenithOptimedia in Toronto, says, ‘We assumed there was no hockey – but at the same time negotiated some flexibility so that if hockey did come back, the dollars would be allocated back to hockey. We actually looked at prime time TV – a regular buy.

‘So now that finally there is no hockey season, we have made other arrangements. I don’t think there are any additional dollars left to go into additional sports programming.’

The rationale is simple: no other sport delivers the reach in Canada that NHL hockey does.

Ng says, ‘No other sport has the same kind of appeal that hockey has in Canada. The only ones that could drum up some sort of interest – and we do book spots on them – are the NFL and the CFL. We already invested dollars with those properties in the fall. Going into spring right now, there’s no football and I don’t think any other programming would deliver the same kind of impact as hockey.’

On the other side of the coin, broadcasters are hopeful their lineups will capture a few of the spring dollars.

CBC – the hardest hit by the absence of hockey – is doing its part to keep hockey alive. It has rescheduled The Life and Times of Wayne Gretzky from March 10 to April 7. Filming has also started on a new 10-part bilingual documentary series called Hockey: A People’s History from the same production team responsible for Canada: A People’s History, which garnered good ratings for CBC in 2000 and 2001.

The broadcaster replaced HNIC’s Saturday timeslot with Movie Night in Canada hosted by Ron MacLean, the face of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and Olympic coverage, but its not likely to recoup the estimated $20 million in ad revenues it lost because of the lockout.

The sports specialties expect to draw some attention through expanded coverage of other sports. For TSN, this means adds more NBA games and NASCAR races to its coverage. During the spring season usually highlighted by the NHL Playoffs and countdown to the finale, the Stanley Cup, TSN is offering the games of the National Women’s Hockey League, the IIHF World Women’s Hockey Championship from Sweden, the IIHF World Men’s Hockey Championship from Austria, as well as the World Under-18 Hockey Championship from the Czech Republic, and the Junior A hockey tournament being held in Saskatchewan.

Sportsnet has Blue Jays baseball to look forward to along with the NCAA Mens’ Basketball Tournament and the Canadian Men’s Junior Hockey Championship.