Bell and Rogers tell sports bars that broadcast TSN and Sportsnet: Pay up, or else
Fans gather at Real Sports Bar beside the Air Canada Centre in Toronto to watch Team Canada's men's hockey team win the gold medal against Sweden on Feb. 23, 2014. Telecommunications giants Bell and Rogers are increasing fees to bars that broadcast sports channels TSN and Sportsnet. (Michael Peake/Toronto Sun/Files)
If I know anything about the kids these days, what with their beards and their ball caps and their hoppy beers, it’s that they do not pay for cable. I’m told that many of them don’t even own a television, the rascals.
The logic is simple enough. Just about anything can be watched on a computer at a time of one’s choosing, and for those occasions when one must watch an event live — a sporting contest, for example — you can put on your best cap and go to a bar and watch it while drinking a hoppy beer.
But, be warned, kids: the bar might soon have second thoughts about showing that game.
Bell and Rogers, the twin conglomerates of the sports-media landscape in this country, have decided to remove their main sports channels from the bundled packages available to businesses that have a liquor licence. They will then offer TSN and Sportsnet — and their various regional feeds — as standalone packages at significantly increased fees. So, where they previously had those channels available at a cost not unlike a typical residential subscription, now bars and restaurants will have to pay specifically for the right to have TSN and Sportsnet in their lineups.
Smaller bars — less than 100 seats — will be charged about $120 monthly for both channels on top of existing fees, and the cost increases according to seating capacity. The new prices — not that anyone was keen to put them on the record — will also apply to customers who subscribe to those channels through a third party like Shaw or Telus. Shaw confirmed Tuesday that the new prices are set by the channel owners, regardless of service provider.
It cannot be a coincidence that Bell and Rogers, generally fierce competitors, are making this change at the same time. You might call it collusion, but at the very least there are cahoots involved.
With the decline in television viewership — late last year the CRTC reported Canadians spent more on Internet packages than television subscriptions for the first time — and with broadcasters now forced to offer some kind of a-la-carte pricing for their channels, it is not surprising that the major sports broadcasters would look to bars who are showing their product to an audience of dozens, or even hundreds, as a way of capturing some of that leaking revenue back.
In a message provided to its business customers about the changes scheduled for May 1, Bell provided the following explanation for why it is charging extra for its sports channels: “The new rates are designed to more accurately reflect the commercial use of the sports channels and the value that these channels represent to commercial establishments,” it says. “We believe that sports programming is a powerful attractor for bar and restaurant patrons, and that the investment to continue to receive these channels is a good business decision for most establishments.”
Or, put another way: Why are we doing this? Because we can.
Just like a viewer might not want to pay for a suite of channels he never watches — this was the argument behind the CRTC’s forced unbundling of channel packages — the broadcasters have apparently decided that they don’t want to treat their sports channels as having the same value to a bar as, say, the History Channel or HGTV. Bell and Rogers are placing a bet that restaurants and bars will be willing to eat the new fees because the alternative would be to tell sports-minded patrons that no, the game is not on here, but can I interest you in a particularly spicy episode of Love It or List It? (I think they might list it!)
While the bar owners of the country are understandably displeased by this development — people as a rule do not like it when their fees are increased — it will be interesting to see if many dislike it so much that they won’t go along. Would some bars simply turn off the TVs rather than pay a large increase for TSN and Sportsnet? Would they turn around and increase prices for their beer, hoppy or otherwise?
This would, if nothing else, not endear Rogers and Bell to the Canadian sports fan who is long used to watching the game over a couple of pints at their local. Both companies are multi-billion-dollar telecommunications conglomerates; between them, they not only control just the television (and radio) broadcasting rights for almost every major sporting event in North America, but, in the case of Canada’s biggest market, they also happen to own a majority of all the sports franchises.
Putting the boots to Joe and Jane Sportsbar is a bit of an awkward look, and doing it just as NHL and NBA playoffs begin and the MLB season gets underway is not particularly subtle. Pay up, or else.
Sports is big business, we are often told. And there it is, another reminder.