How the Rogers/NHL deal came to be

November 26, 2013, 5:56 PM

There were handshakes all around in the New York City boardroom, and at least one hug. There were also a few beers and a sense of—if not relief—then definitely relaxation. The whole thing was, save for potential devils in the details, over. The biggest fish in Canadian sports media history had been boated.

Above all, in the hours after the National Hockey League and Rogers Communications hammered out the principle terms of a $5.2-billion deal that would give the telecommunications giant exclusive national broadcast and digital rights to all hockey games in Canada, there was a sense of astonishment.

It had come together so fast. It was so massive. And somehow, there were very few sticking points.

“For a deal of this magnitude, it probably happened a lot faster than anyone anticipated,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview a few hours after the announcement in Toronto.

When word began to trickle onto social media late Monday night, it seemed as though some changes to the sports media landscape might be coming. But it wasn’t until the official word came Tuesday morning that it became clear just how massive they would be. Starting next season, TSN will no longer broadcast NHL games nationally. Rogers will control the entire package—sub-licensing some games out to the CBC and TVA but still retaining control of the properties. Rogers will own all the NHL’s digital rights in Canada, including Game Centre Live as well as digital highlights. The deal runs for 12 years.

It’s one thing to conceive of and execute something that hasn’t been attempted before—a major North American sports league pairing with a sole national and digital rights holder for a dozen years. It’s another thing to do it in less than a week.

From a meeting last Wednesday, when the two parties, in the words of NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, developed “the expectation and anticipation we would work together” to the handshake agreement in principle late Saturday in the NHL’s executive boardroom in New York City, then final signatures at about 3 a.m. Monday morning, the foundation for the next decade of Canadian sports media was built in a span of five days. “When I hugged and shook hands with Gary,” says Rogers Media president Keith Pelley. “That was when we knew we had a deal.”

The grip-and-grin happened Saturday night, in that executive boardroom, thick with staff and lawyers. When the deal was reached in principle, the Coors Lights were cracked and it started to dawn on the parties just how… smoothly it had all gone. “It’s incredibly unusual,” says Pelley. “And I think it’s even more unusual considering the magnitude of this deal. It speaks volumes towards the alignment both parties had to a common vision.”

It was the league that wanted to put all of its rights in the hands of one media company over multiple platforms, says Pelley. “It was their decision. The NHL was proactive on that.”

And on the other side of the fence, the league didn’t blink at the 12-year term, says Bettman, even knowing that the game’s growth could outpace the value of the agreement. “If in the last two years of the deal it turns out that maybe we could have gotten more, well, that’ll just be good news for the next negotiation.”

Both sides expected these negotiations might go back and forth over such issues, as is usually the case for a multi-billion-dollar rights deal—and you never know what might halt the process. But it never really happened, says Daly. “There were issues that Rogers raised that were important to them that we tried to work through and vice versa,” he says. “(But) you’ve been working hard toward achieving something knowing that at any point you may hit a wall that you can’t get over or around…and we never hit that in this negotiation. So when you get to the finish line it’s very gratifying.”

Adds Pelley: “You do what you have to do,” referring to the long sessions required to crank the deal out. “Safe to say over the weekend I’ll try to get a full eight hours.”

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