The whole room was one big sales pitch.
When Rogers Communications Inc. executives hosted NHL commissioner Gary Bettman two months ago to discuss the league’s broadcast rights for Canada, they didn’t take him to any old boardroom at their complex at Mount Pleasant and Bloor E.
They chose “HockeyCentral,” with its sense of the game’s history. The conference table is a facsimile of a rink, with centre line, blue lines and goal creases. On the walls hang Junior A sweaters as well as team sweaters from the pros. Very cool.
Bettman must have thought so too.
“Well, I guess we don’t have to ask you if you value hockey as a property,” he remarked to laughter.
Rogers announced the largest deal in NHL history on Nov. 26. The communications and media giant will pay $5.2 billion for exclusive rights as the NHL’s multimedia partner over 12 years.
Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media division, and Scott Moore, president of the broadcast sector, declined to comment on the competition, specifically the current dominant player TSN (owned by BCE), which also submitted a bid. Said Pelley: “This isn’t about beating the competition; it’s about securing the most coveted sports rights for Rogers (for) 12 years and putting us in a wonderful position.”
By the time Pelley and Moore met with the Star on Thursday, they were still floating, seeming to pinch themselves over successful talks that began on Sept. 12 and concluded in a 72-hour crunch that involved two trips to Manhattan, sleepless nights and a scramble to get the contracts drawn up the day before the announcement.
It’s too soon to say whether it’s a good deal for Rogers, but the vision they’re so excited about is easy to see: for the hockey fanatic, games will be available on every device they own, right across the country.
As Bettman told Rogers-owned Sportsnet: “Our fans always want to explore deeper and more emotional connections to NHL hockey, and that is precisely what Rogers has promised to deliver.”
They sat down for interviews in the former office of revered founder Ted Rogers. Moore knew Rogers and Pelley says that not a day goes by when he doesn’t hear a new story about Rogers Sr.
It’s likely that Rogers Sr., who died in 2008 at 75, would have been proud. “Ted had a habit of going big and taking chances,” said a Toronto executive who knew Rogers.
The final days in the rush to a deal were wild. What other core bargaining team in Canada has an Ivy League player called “Hollywood” and a 28-year-old whiz kid who crunches numbers and cools his heels at McDonald’s while the pinstripes do the high-profile lifting with Bettman in New York City?
The celebrations were bittersweet. The day of our interview, Pelley had to leave to join others in feting CEO Nadir Mohammed, who saw his final deal through and retired at the end of this week. He’s being replaced by British telecom executive Guy Laurence, expected to take over the CEO reins next week.
Pelley said the rush to finish had nothing to do with the new CEO and that Laurence has been well-briefed on the NHL deal and was onside. Rather, he added, it revolved around things like an NHL board meeting next week and the amount of work the Rogers people have to do before the 2014-15 season and the birth of its new hockey universe.
It sounds as if it could be all hockey all the time on every platform in the communications toolbox. It will still be on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada for a guaranteed four years, with CBC paying nothing but getting no revenue. CBC will no longer have editorial control.
The first payment of $300 million comes after the Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring of 2014. “It’s pay as you play,” said Pelley, with payments every year until the final $500 million in 2026.
The successful Rogers team seems about as tight as one can get.
“Nadir had the vision of building sports and all of us consolidated and made a commitment” to working out a plan for buying all the rights,” said Pelley. “Make no mistake, it was their concept (the NHL’s), not our concept, to buy all the rights.”
They came out of the September meeting and put a very small group together. “We (worked) in a very clandestine fashion with a very few people involved — our strategy group, finance people — looking at this forensically from all facets,” said Pelley.
Scott’s team worked on it, then Scott and Pelley went to chief financial officer Tony Staffieri. Pelley recalls him saying: “This is something we have to do.”
Then, the three went to Mohammed. His comment according to Pelley was: “This is on strategy.”
It was an internal go. They co-ordinated a meeting for Nov. 20 at NHL headquarters on Avenue of the Americas in New York. The core team consisted of Mohammed, Staffieri, Pelley, Scott, Michael Webber (senior legal counsel), Scott MacMillan (a.k.a. Hollywood, VP of strategy) and Andrew Myers, 28 (a.k.a. whiz kid, a senior analyst).
Only five went to the NHL offices. Hollywood (so-named, according to Moore, because “he’s a sharp dresser, good-looking”) didn’t go in and Myers, the number-cruncher, spent the better part of the day cooling his heels at a McDonald’s. Explained Moore: “We didn’t want the league to think we could (work out) a model for anything higher than our original bid.
“Trust me, Gary got everything and more than we were prepared to offer.”
They were so elated that, according to Pelley, Moore — who “doesn’t like to be touched” — was hugging with everybody else. “He said he would make an exception.”
The team has memories for the rest of their lives. Pelley and Moore were already tight, friends for 30 years, since Moore was assignment editor at TSN and hired Pelley as a “flugen,” now known as a broadcast associate, who watches the games and cuts the highlight packages. The pay was $7 an hour. “I knew full well he would repay the favour,” said Moore. “My job now is worth slightly more than $7 an hour.”
They delight in their jobs and their lifestyles. Toronto native Pelley lives in Etobicoke with his wife Joan and children, Hope, 7, and Jason, 10. He drives a Lexus sedan and a minivan with his kids. Since we’d been talking about how people are fascinated by everything about the players, I asked Pelley what he makes. “My father told me to never talk about my salary with anyone but my wife,” he said.
Moore, from Montreal and a Canadiens fan, lives in a Toronto condo with his wife Becky and drives an SUV.
They alternate between throwing lines off each other and wild enthusiasm over the enormity of what they hope to do with the new deal.
Pelley explained the whole concept began three years ago when Mohammed said that Rogers wanted to be “the dominant player in sports.”
He calls the NHL deal “the pinnacle to control the most coveted content in Canada across multiple platforms . . . for 12 years, unequivocally positioning us as the dominant player in Canada . . . We are committed to bringing the NHL to Canada like never before.”
Essentially they describe a whole new hockey universe in which the NHL “wants us to experiment with innovation.” At the top of their list of plans is a strategy of “showing the stars.” Pelley talks about his 10-year-old boy and says “you can learn so much from the way kids consume media. He follows stars.
His son doesn’t care about boardroom stories. He loves the Chicago Blackhawks and players like right winger Patrick Kane. “He cares about why he wears 88, where he comes from and what kind of curve he has on his stick.”
For Pelley, it’s the same grassroots approach he took as president of Canada’s Vancouver Olympic Games media consortium, in which individual athletes were highlighted in coverage.
Scott remembers Hockey Night in Canada interviewing players in their homes in the break after the second period and he loved it. He talks about the opportunities today to do it across many platforms, using social media, appearances and other formats they are just now working out.
Yes, but will today’s highly paid players agree to a more grassroots approach?
Both are certain they will. Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban called to offer congratulations, said Scott, “and he told me that he could help get some of the stars to do things off-season.”
This is the first weekend both men will have off. Next week, they head to Pelley’s cottage in the Muskokas to start the planning period.
“Never has there been a partnership between two leagues like this,” says Pelley. “This is going to be phenomenal.”
But at what cost to consumers?
“There will be far more games . . . than ever before,” said Pelley. “Our entire model we’ve built is predicated on Rogers media being self-sustainable (with) advertising being the number one irrevocable revenue source.”
And he promised Rogers will be able to offer to advertisers “the most integrated, activated, marketing solution that has ever been given to them before.”
Pelley makes a final commitment. Earlier in the week, Don Cherry, the love-him-or-hate him CBC hockey analyst, worried publicly about his job under his new Rogers masters. Pelley offered comfort but no details, other than to say they haven’t even begun to strategize on how he could figure into the plans.
“Don Cherry is an icon,” Pelley said. “He’s part of the fabric of our culture.”