Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Walking the fine line – Don Cherry and the future of Hockey Night in Canada

There is a fine line that on-air media talent walks every day. Controversy generates interest, interest generates ratings and ratings generate advertising dollars. Rush Limbaugh referred to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law school student, as a “slut” and a “prostitute in a recent radio broadcast, which created national controversy resulting in an apology from Limbaugh.

Carbonite and AOL walked away from their existing ad commitments to Limbaugh's show. Other hallmark marketers including Allstate, Capital One, J.C. Penney, Netflix, and Sears announced that any of their commercials that had run on Limbaugh's show had been put there by mistake and that they did not want to be associated with his program in the wake of his three-day attack of a student. Limbaugh’s reaction – other companies were lining up to sponsor his show. The Limbaugh/Fluke story was covered on national news broadcasts. His apologies aside – Limbaugh’s brand awareness grew, his ratings increased and while he did lose sponsors, those sponsors will be replaced. Limbaugh walked a fine line but he survived.

The most valuable Canadian sports property is Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC). Hockey Night in Canada is primarily associated with CBC's Saturday night NHL broadcasts, a practice that began in 1931 on the CNR Radio network and its predecessors, and debuting on television (CBC) beginning in 1952. Initially only airing a single game weekly, the modern incarnation airs a weekly double-header, various segments during the intermissions and between games (such as Don Cherry's Coach's Corner), and pre and post-game coverage of the night's games.

The current contract the CBC has with the NHL expires after the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. CTV Canada’s largest television network is expected to aggressively bid for the rights to HNIC. CTV’s parent company, Bell Globe Media, owns TSN Canada’s largest sports cable network. Bell Globe Media and Rogers Communications (who own SportsNet Canada’s second largest cable sports network) purchased a controlling interest in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs) in December 2011. If Bell Globe Media (or Rogers Communications) gains control of HNIC, they would be positioned to become the dominant Canadian television sports rights holder. If the CBC loses HNIC, their sports broadcasting future would be in doubt.

The CBC created Coaches Corner, a segment that features former Boston Bruins coach Don Cherry in 1981. Throughout the last 31 years, Coaches Corner has been a ratings winner for the CBC. The segment has generated significant advertising dollars for the CBC. Cherry’s key to success – being controversial, and walking the same fine line Rush Limbaugh did when he spent three days talking about Sandra Fluke.

Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, fired the Leafs Head Coach Ron Wilson on March 2, 2012. Cherry used the March 3 Coaches Corner to criticize Burke.

Cherry began his assault on Burke by insinuating Burke had contacted the CBC hoping to have Cherry fired: "I had my say about him [Wilson] three-and-a-half years ago, the blood is in the water," Cherry said. "The funny thing though, and here is what kills me, [Brian] Burke goes to my bosses and says I am a bad guy because I said something vicious about his coach; two weeks later he fires him, figure that one out folks!"

Cherry was only beginning his attack on Burke. Brian Burke is an American. Burke built the Vancouver Canucks into Stanley Cup contenders. The 2007 Anaheim Mighty Ducks won the Stanley Cup; Brian Burke was the Ducks general manager.

"Every team in the National Hockey League has a guy from Ontario except one, guess who it is? It’s Ontario's Toronto Maple Leafs," Cherry said. "Now if you want American college guys; if you want Americans you got the team … He has American college guys that play for him right now and that's the way I feel and I could go on and on about the whole deal."

Cherry believes Burke is responsible for the situation and is surprised the Providence, R.I., native hasn't decided to bring players from Ontario after failing to make the playoffs in the past three seasons.

"We pay his salary from Ontario, we are the fans out there from Ontario," he said. "Not make the playoffs for three years in a row, probably not four and not have one guy from Ontario, that's a crime as far as I am concerned. …

"I see these kids busting their tails and then they're going to think they won't make Toronto. They would love to make Toronto and that's all I got to say about that."

Don Cherry was playing with fire. Brian Burke’s record speaks for itself. He builds winners, has won a Stanley Cup. Suggesting Brian Burke isn’t interested in hockey players from Ontario doesn’t make any sense. Why then did Cherry say what he said – in part to generate ratings and build his own brand awareness. That’s not to suggest Don Cherry didn’t believe in what he said, but he said what he did because of his reputation.

The Globe and Mail’s (based in Ontario) Bruce Dowbiggen suggested in a March 4 report that the future of HNIC on the CBC could be directly linked to Cherry’s future with the network. Dowbiggen focused not only on the March 3 Coaches Corner segment, other Coaches Corner’s and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s refusal to appear on HNIC over the last year, as signs the NHL might walk away from the CBC.

There are other Canadian NHL teams who are concerned about the CBC’s handling of the NHL. During the NHL Board of Governors meeting held in January in Ottawa, the CBC’s future with the NHL was a topic of conversation. According to Dowbiggen, Burke led the assault but wasn’t the only Canadian NHL team executive to express concerns.

“I didn't comment at all on [Ron] MacLean or Cherry,” Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk told The Globe and Mail. “My issue dealt with the number of games shown on HNIC that are not Sens games and my concern about how skewed they are to another team that you can easily deduce. ... I wasn't given any concrete response.”

“It got a little warm in there,” says Edmonton Oilers President Patrick LaForge. “If NHL realignment was a 3 on the Richter emotional scale, this was a 5. Having said that, it's not abnormal for our meetings to get that way. I just didn't think it was the right format for that discussion.”

The CBC and the NHL are partners. Fifty-five percent of the CBC’s budget comes from advertising revenues (Canadian taxpayers pay the other 45%). The single biggest source of advertising dollars for the CBC is HNIC. The CBC needs the NHL, but does that give the NHL editorial control on HNIC?

Yes and no; and that’s where Cherry’s nonsensical March 3 comments showcase why the CBC needs to fire Don Cherry. There is nothing to suggest in the 15 years Brian Burke has served as an NHL general manager for four different NHL teams that Burke has a bias against Ontario-born NHL players. Cherry’s inane statements on Coaches Corner embarrassed Burke, the NHL and the CBC.

Cherry’s March 3 Coaches Corner wasn’t the first time his comments have embarrassed both his employer and the NHL. The NHL has no right to censor what journalists say about the league. At the same time, the league’s broadcast partners have to be certain that there is sensitivity regarding what they say about the league.

The NHL does have the right to determine who they want to work with. If CBC has a future with the NHL that future isn’t going to include Don Cherry. Cherry has crossed over that mythical line in the sand too often.

For Sports Business News, this is Howard Bloom

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