UPDATED: Sportsnet shows OUA sports the door

What a year.

Sportsnet has decided to stop airing OUA football as well as the Wilson Cup playoffs after only one CIS season.

The news comes via Scott Radley at the Hamilton Spectator, from the hyperlinked article above:

"Our broadcast rights agreement with the OUA has expired, so we will no longer be broadcasting OUA regular season football games or the (basketball) Wilson Cup," says Sportsnet director of communications Jennifer Neziol. "We're focused on building a national CIS presence and supporting CIS athletes across the country through our partnership with the CIS, which includes providing coverage of the Mitchell Bowl, Uteck Bowl and Vanier Cup, as well as the national championships for men's and women's hockey, and men's and women's basketball."
It should not be a surprise to hear that Sportsnet is giving up on covering the regular season of OUA football. On the business side, OUA football and basketball are not high value properties. Part of that can be blamed on Rogers itself - there is a lack of coverage of the league through the week, so the games just pop up on Saturday afternoons without any real buzz.

Sportsnet was tasked with creating fanfare for the league if they wanted to build the property. The OUA was more than willing to help. Marshall Ferguson - McMaster quarterback and a broadcasting partner of mine at Mac's radio station - reached out to Bryan Crawford, Executive Director of the OUA.

In conversation, Ferguson and I wondered about the impact of the lack of TV revenue and if there even was any. Crawford said the OUA "committed significant financial resources" to help with "SportsnetU" and "University Rush" broadcasts. In exchange, the OUA got visibility. Fair trade.

Jeff Giles, former athletic director at McMaster University, told Ferguson that there should not be a major impact on athletic department cash flow around the league.

"In the short term, there shouldn't be too much of an effect on the university's revenue as the TV numbers on Sportsnet the past few years have been terrible. Hopefully, OUA.tv can draw numbers close to them," said Giles.

Giles also offered a look at why Sportsnet dropped the property (outside of the idea that Rogers NHL deal was vacuum for funding). "The real issue here is the lack of interest for OUA football, as reflected in the [TV] numbers. In part, it relates to the lack of parity and in part poor marketing by everyone, including the schools, the OUA and in particular the TV networks."

"The TV networks say it does not look good given the low attendance. It's a catch-22 that needs to be fixed."

I think Giles is bang-on. Attendance is only good when it's a Homecoming game, which is why Sportsnet (and the Score) built their schedule around those games.

Parity is a big and well-known factor. Even the gap between the Yates Cup winner and the runner-up has been massive in recent years and the games that should be an easy sell to casual fans have results that are foregone conclusions.

Sportsnet giving up on the league after one year of coverage is nothing short of damning. If a sport is not on TV, does it even exist? In the age where TSN has five (!!!) stations and Sportsnet has four (Sportsnet [regional], 360, SN1 and Sportsnet World), you have to be a wholly unattractive property to not be picked up by someone. Both broadcasters ignoring the league also says to an impressionable first-year student that this stuff is not important.

And that is where OUA.tv comes in. If that can be some kind of draw and establish a consistent following, maybe OUA football becomes something of value. OUA.tv should have more cash now, since the league will not be spending anything to help Rogers broadcast.

I wrote glowingly about the OUA.tv launch and I stand by it. Radley questions the broadcast quality because he says it will be student-led broadcasts. For one, that is wholly unfair to the students who have not even streamed a game yet. Second, athletic departments are taking the lead on this.

Thirdly, let's not act like the Sportsnet broadcast was earning any awards for the quality of its broadcasts. It was passable, but you can find some passionate students to provide more insight about the teams, especially if covering this league is their sole responsibility.

As important as the casual viewer is, the OUA was never going to get them anyways. They directly compete with the glamorous NCAA, and people in Canada do not have the same affinity to their university's as our American counterparts do. I don't know if you're going to retain people as fans when they move on from campus.

Maybe I am too optimistic, but I do think the OUA can bounce back from this. Their target demographic should be students, and students do not pay for cable anymore - Netflix and torrents are the norm. There is no time to pout and look for a TV deal. Own the loss, make OUA.tv a student-friendly experience, and maybe someone will find you worth investment. If the OUA allows themselves to be defined by the value that national networks put in them, well, they will have less success than 2003-08 University of Toronto Varsity Blues football team.

Update on Aug. 20/14
You can end the speculation now because Morgan Campbell at the Toronto Star spoke with Scott Moore about the dropping of OUA football coverage.

Moore, president of Sportsnet, says it's all about the funds. A block quote here will save us some time:

But Sportsnet president Scott Moore says the network allowed the OUA deal to lapse because of high production costs and small audiences, not because NHL coverage would consume resources.
He says Sportsnet remains committed to Canadian university sports, broadcasting football, basketball and hockey playoffs from conferences across the country. But with 10 OUA regular season games averaging just 28,000 viewers last year, Moore says he couldn’t make a business case for keeping the games on the air.
“Even our biggest properties with the biggest rights fees, our cost per viewer to deliver those would be somewhere in the five- to 10-cent range,” he said. “The cost to produce a football game and have 28,000 people watch it is about $3 (per viewer).”

Now, the OUA's subsidizing of the broadcast is not addressed in the article. We don't know how much the OUA spent, but it would be really interesting to see what percent of those $3/viewer came from the OUA. Moore probably would not have talked about that anyways, because you do not become the president of a major sports broadcaster by taking the skeletons out of the closet.

Campbell writes, "[i]ronically, university-level football and basketball in the U.S. have never been a more valuable broadcast property." I would not say that is ironic in any way shape or form, considering the products are not similar. But I think he is hinting that there is a possibility for the league to grow within the country, given the state of footballing affairs in the States.

Another key line is that TSN and CBC are both not interested in picking up the league. The OUA's Bryan Crawford said that getting the league back on TV is a goal. In related news, I have a goal to go on a date with Alison Brie. At this current time, both goals are unlikely. 

Some more info on the topic:

Mac quarterback Marshall Ferguson gives us his thoughts on losing TV coverage: http://wearemarshallferguson.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/sportsnet-refuses-to-shine-spotlight-on-oua-leaving-athletes-in-the-dark-and-the-future-in-doubt/

Scott Radley joined Ferguson on CFMU radio to discuss the impact on OUA football (you just have to endure Rush for a couple minutes at the beginning): 

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  1. Scott,

    Regarding the presumed unattractiveness of the property, because neither TSN nor Rogers are picking it up, I'd only note that sports on those channels are extremely rare now. Both networks feature the same programming on all their channels, the vast majority of which consists of people shouting at each other.

    1. That is a more appropriate criticism of ESPN, not Sportsnet or TSN. Just take a look a the TSN schedule: http://www.tsn.ca/tsnschedule/?collection=72&show=68592 or the Sportsnet schedule http://www.sportsnet.ca/schedule/.

      On the day of posting this comment, the only shows that involved TV personalities were Blue Jays Central and sports recap show. It seems like at least 80% of the possible 48 hours between two stations were live sports.

      So, I have to disagree. To TSN and SN's credit, they have not "embraced debate" the way John Skipper at ESPN has encouraged. There are some shows like Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption, but they are shown when there is no other live games.

  2. Scott, are you sure the target demographic should be students? Students have little disposable income and often leave university communities once graduated. It would be very interesting for a school to target local young families and stick with that strategy as those kids become highschool students and eventually university students. OUA athletics have zero culture that transcends age groups like NCAA schools often do. In my opinion, the way to create that culture is with kids, not broke students who don't even stay past 4 years. As a McMaster guy through and through, I hate to say it, but go to any important Laval game and you'll see exactly what I mean.

    1. You make a good point, I am not being clear enough about my reasoning for the target demo.

      My logic behind that is you probably are not going to convert any of the 25+ age range fans. They are too far removed from their university days and don't see the OUA as a real league. If they targeted students and made them fans, maybe you'll retain them as lifelong supporters. They have to play the long-game here, which is probably a really tough ask.

      You and I share the same idea I think, you are just interested in starting much younger. I don't disagree with that, I just think students are the easiest group to convert. Families would not be far behind, though.

  3. Great write-up Scott. I hope to read a lot more of you once the games actually start.

    Starting a fire under the campus and beyond-the-gates communities has always been a problem for Canadian university sport, even for the so-called big dog football programs. Its interesting to hear that the conference was already subsidising the broadcaster, as they were likely doing for theScore before. Its a niche product, no doubt.

    If these multi-media organizations aren't going to perceiver, in telling the stories of local sports going on in their very own backyard, then there are some very real questions about the direction plotted by the governing bodies and what exactly happened when. For instance, I'd love to know the exact time frame in which the CIS chose to sign their championships deal with Rogers and when there were rumblings that the broadcaster would not be renewing the OUA football regular season package.

    Of course, the Rogers acquisition of theScore probably complicated matters. However, if the powers that be at the CIS were willing to give Rogers the rights to the Mitchell, Uteck, and Vanier, despite there being rumblings about the canning of the OUA regular season by the broadcaster, there would be a couple of significant questions about whether the CIS negotiated in good faith and with the best interests of all university sport partners in mind.

    Getting the powers-that-be on-record about that time-line just might be worth your time.