SN X: From inspiration to perspiration

September 13, 2009, 7:34 PM

It was 10 years ago today – on Oct. 9, 1998 – that Sportsnet first hit the airwaves. Not bad considering many "experts" predicted we wouldn’t last 10 months.
Putting together a national sports network is no easy task and the following article recounts the journey from inspiration to perspiration.
- reprinted courtesy Broadcast Magazine

* * *

How Sportsnet got here, from there, is one of sports broadcasting’s great success stories.

Prior to October 9, 1998, there was no Sportsnet in Canada – Rogers or otherwise. There was only one sports specialty channel back then – hard to believe, when today, you could say we have 10 or more!

But back then, some people felt another sports channel could not be financially supportable, even if it were able to get regulatory approval.

"It was more than a risk," recalls Nick Kypreos, one the many professional athletes who have migrated to sports broadcasting, and one of the Sportsnet originals. "They flat out told us it would never fly! Outside of the people directly involved in it there was a general feeling out there that this thing was going to fail, that there was no room in the country for another all sports channel. We had one already, so the feeling – very mistaken as we know – was that it would not last!"

But understanding the difference between national and regional sports, and understanding the incredible passion that fans have for their own, local, team, was key to seeing the value of other, regional, outlets.

As Beeforth sees it, however, "It’s very easy to say this now, but from day one I always believed there was more than enough room for more than one sports channel in Canada.

"You look south of the border, they had ESPN national, and then they had a large number of what they called regional sports channels.

"It was Phil Lind, the Vice Chair at Rogers, who got the ball rolling."

Phil Lind recalls the importance of the many significant cable partnerships Rogers had in the U.S. throughout the 1990′s, and the fact that regional sports was a big factor in the success of the early FOX Sports.

"Friendships and partnerships, that’s what the foundation was built upon. Our partners down there asked us, ‘Why don’t you have a regional sports channel in Canada?’ We thought, ‘It’s worth trying!’"

One problem, Lind recalls, was the CRTC, and its rule limiting ownership by cable companies of TV outlets to 19%. "We wanted to own the network, so we had to put a partnership together.

"We went to see John (Cassaday, President of CTV). He understood right away, and he was an outstanding performer in our applications. He was leading the charge, and without him, this thing would not have got going!

"Cassaday got it right away. Molson’s needed to be convinced a bit, but we knew it was going to work, because we knew how much sports people watch. It was obvious we needed more sports in Canada. So, it wasn’t difficult to convince the investors; it certainly wasn’t difficult to convince the cable companies. But, at the CRTC, there was a challenge to show that regional sports were different than national sports. So we had to prove that there was an appetite for that kind of sports, based around home team passions and interests. The CRTC had already given a sports licence; they believed they were done, that was it. But we had another vision."

Many discussions, consultations, presentations and applications to the CRTC later, CTV was given the go-ahead for something called Sportsnet. CTV owned 40% and was the managing partner of the new network; Rogers, Molson and Fox owned 20% each.

The name was chosen to match the regional “Fox Sports Net” operations across the United States, one of the inspirations for the launch here.

Lind noted with some irony that the new network gained immediate credibility before it went on the air by stick handling the NHL Canadian cable package away from long-time holder TSN.

"The things that got us launched was a deal with the NHL, which we worked out with Gary Bettman, but ironically that was national!"

(From 1998-99 until 2001-02, Sportsnet aired Tuesday Night Hockey nationally, throughout the regular season. It covered first-round playoff series not involving Canadian teams.)

"We needed something big to launch our service," recalls Lind. "Now, we have the regional deals and TSN has the national. That’s the way it should have been from the start!"

Well, it is now. In 2008-2009, Rogers Sportsnet will air regional NHL broadcasts from five Canadian teams including 28-Toronto Maple Leaf games, 40-Ottawa Senator games, 47-Edmonton Oiler games, 46-Calgary Flame games, and 45-Vancouver Canuck games – more regional matches than any other broadcaster.

But, on the day CTV Sportsnet went on the air, its first live sports event was an NHL opening-night double header – one telecast between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers from Madison Square Garden, and the Calgary Flames versus the San Jose Sharks from Japan!

* * *

"I can still remember the buzz of activity, trying to get everything done for that deadline," remembers Rob Faulds, one of the original CTV Sportsnet on-air personalities, and still with the service today.

"I was in the office, getting ready to call hockey off a tube from Tokyo; Calgary playing San Jose in our second game. Everyone was running around, doing their prep, getting ready for the 6 o’clock sign-on. The energy was building and building – you could feel it!"

The original studios were something like an old hospital operating room. Small, sunken down, surrounded by a viewing level.

"We’re gathered around, everyone’s on the balcony, looking down into the studio," Faulds describes. "And, there’s Suneel (Joshi), who, following the opening animation, said calmly:

‘Welcome, everybody, to the dawn of a new sports era, with Sportsnet!’

"Well, there was a real explosion of applause after the first commercial break…and then we all had to go back to work, and do what we were doing. The next day, I left to do curling in Winnipeg!"

* * *

That early assignment both typifies the regional sports concept so critical to Sportsnet’s mandate, and even back then, it was a technological teaser of things to come.

Sports: anywhere, anytime.

"Making video content available to handheld mobile devices is a very fast-growing segment for us," explains Bruno. "Highlights from a game are edited down in to a time and format that’s required by the carriers. We need to be careful about edits, selective about on screen graphics or titles, and flexible in our ability to down-converted to the right cell phone format.

"When you’re looking at HD, for example, it’s 1920 X 1080i," Bruno details. "But most cell phones are about 240 X 200, so we have to get the resolution, the format and the screen size correct, for any number of platforms, from cell phones to websites," he notes, adding that some 13 or 14 different formats are regularly output."

Providing content to online or mobile platforms means Sportsnet can extend its brand into the living room or den. It mean Sportsnet can bring value added items, like promotions, contests, coupons and other calls-to-action, and build a new business there. It’s one more way the broadcaster becomes a content provider.
Whatever the flavour of digital high definition video, Sportsnet has to be able to move it around the new facility quickly and easily. Accordingly, it ordered a new Evertz EQX 576 X 576 router, one that supports signals from 3Mb/s all the way up to 3Gb/s, so it is able to handle the most demanding digital video formats.

Production control rooms have been outfitted with Ross Vision Switchers, Ross’ newest line of switchers. "We’ve tried to support the Canadian industry whenever possible," says Bruno, noting strong products and competitive pricing makes that approach easier. Audio consoles from Calrec Omega bring full 5.1 surround sound capabilities to the full HD video signal.

As the audio and video signals emerging from the new facility will be of the highest quality, serving four distinct regional channels with HD content, Sportsnet has also installed a Harris IconMaster SD and HD master control and branding system, adding critical master control functions with integrated branding capabilities.

* * *

Barely two years after Sportsnet’s historic sign-on, its brand was changing.

CTV purchased NetStar, the parent company to TSN, and the CRTC told it to sell one or the other to avoid a conflict. CTV chose to sell Sportsnet, and Rogers acquired the channel, renaming it Rogers Sportsnet in November, 2001. Rogers would subsequently acquire the outstanding shares to become sole owner.

It was huge news at the time, but in a way, it was overshadowed by news of other Rogers’ acquisitions.

In September 2000, Rogers Communications had bought the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club and in 2004, it acquired SkyDome, renaming it Rogers Centre. Another sports property, The FAN 590 radio station, joined Rogers Media in August 2001 along with 14 other Northern Ontario radio stations.

The series of buys made perfect sports sense, but the purchases were the result of a happy string of coincidences and opportunistic business acumen, not a careful strategic plan, Lind recalls.
"Owning a team was not a part of the vision, but when considering the purchase of the team, it certainly factored in at that point," he explains. "But no, we didn’t go into the sports channel with the view of owning a team; it was fortuitous, and a sign of the times, and perhaps, it was a sign of things to come in the sports world overall."
Certainly, being able to fill the content pipe with more and more live sports is part of the vision.

By 2003, for example, Sportsnet had a huge slate of hoops games from the NBA – over 200, in fact. The channel’s programming deal with the NBA let it air games nationwide, and on its regional feeds. Sportsnet’s national average audience averaged 60,000 viewers per game, according to Neilsen Media Research figures released at the time.

In 2004, facing a lack of hockey on anybody’s TV, Rogers Sportsnet was blazing trails with its other sports coverage, especially HD baseball.

Sportsnet had by this point produced over 50 games in high definition since it launched Sportsnet HD in September 2003, focused on the home games of the Blue Jays and Toronto Raptors. By August 2004, Sportsnet HD hit the century mark, broadcasting its 100th HD live sports event – the Blue Jays hosting the Boston Red Sox.

Having established its bona fides in the dominant North American sports – hockey, baseball, basketball, football, NASCAR – and by offering the Super Sports Pack as an attractive way of bundling them together, the world of international sports was soon being targeted, with good reason and strong precedent, explains Lind.
"I always thought one of the great things about Rogers was that we were multicultural from the get go, 30 years ago with multilingual television," he says, referencing the family tree that started as MTV/CFMT at one point, but grew under the Rogers umbrella to become OMNI 1 and 2. "I could see in multicultural programming that, besides news or drama, our audience wanted sports. This was particularly important in our markets in southern Ontario and lower B.C. – so many viewers are not originally from Canada, and they want to see the sports from back home.
"Now we get sports from all over the world," he says with obvious pride and enthusiasm, citing the European football arrangements with Setanta and the English Premier League, as well as rubgy and other international sports.
In May 2006, Rogers Communications signed a major multi-platform broadcast agreement with Infront Sports & Media, the worldwide electronic media distribution partner of FIFA and the 2006 World Cup, giving it exclusive rights to live coverage, highlights and more content across multiple platforms.

Rogers Sportsnet (together with TSN and CTV), Rogers Wireless, Rogers Personal TV, Rogers Yahoo! Hi-Speed Internet, and Rogers OMNI Television were involved.

Later that year, Rogers Sportsnet, together with TSN and CTV, announced an agreement to jointly televise all 64 games from the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany (Sportsnet had acquired Canadian broadcast rights for the event the previous year).

One of the company’s biggest international live sports event coups came in February, 2005, when the International Olympic Committee awarded broadcasting rights to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics to an alliance of CTV Inc. and Rogers Communications. IOC president Jacques Rogge said at the time that the winning bid was $153 million U.S., an increase of 124 per cent on the $73 million for the 2006 and 2008 Games.

The deal was significant in a number of ways, and it opened the door to new and, dynamic partnerships in the sports arena, partnerships that could make a competitor on one day, a partner on the next.

"It’s a new way of thinking, undoubtedly, but in today’s world, any company that doesn’t think that way does so at their own peril," explains Beeforth. "I think that what you see in our business is a smaller snapshot of how life in the world is these days. Both in personal life and in business, it is relationships that bring opportunities and different situations.

Another interesting new partnership for Rogers, one with great potential impact, is the Rogers/NFL deal. It brings the Buffalo Bills football team to Toronto and the Rogers Centre for a series of historical, precedent-setting football telecasts.

"That’s absolutely thrilling for us," exclaims Lind with obvious pleasure and satisfaction. "We are so happy we made this deal with Bills, I think you’re going to see that there will be more games than what we’ve heard about already, before the five-year deal is over!"
* * *
Well before the five year deal concludes, still more changes will have been realized within the new facility itself.

Even now, the plant is very close to going tapeless. Thanks to its new server based, file based infrastructure, the core of the plant is digital, and ingest, editing, delivery takes place in that domain.

"We’re going into Phase Two very soon," Gibberd describes, "to integrate our asset management, archiving and storage systems. After completion of testing and training, probably at the end of September, we will be totally tapeless. So when apiece of content comes into Sportsnet – via one of nearly 75 possible spigots – it doesn’t necessarily have to touch tape in anyway shape or form."

That ability to digitally access a wealth of archived and library footage, as well as call current material, is due in part to Sportsnet’s acquisition of additional offline storage from Ardendo.

"The Ardendo system is totally scalable so it really depends on how big your wallet is, but with the Ardendo system we’ll probably go for another 5,000 hours of offline or near-line storage," explained Bruno.

Likewise, he says, Sportsnet’s move to solid state memory card recoding, such as with its four new Panasonic AJ-HPX2000 P2 cameras that store SD or HD footage on P2 memory cards.

"That was another reason we went to Quantel," said Bruno. "Quantel will read those cards directly. So when you attach Panasonic P2 reader, it shows up as content in the Quantel server system. But you’re dealing with cards, not disks or tapes, so there is a learning process for us."

That learning process involves mastering skills and technologies that seem more at home in an IT data centre than a TV production studio. Ten years ago, most studios survived with a very basic naming protocol, or slug system, to identify raw materials and media assets.

Today, it’s all about metadata, deeply imbedded digital data that can convey so much more information about a video clip – and make it so much easier to find and locate that clip when it’s needed. The need to understand metadata, and the implications for content delivery, is a big learning curve for all involved, agrees Gibberd, who says it now involves all the different departments, not just production.

"Provide training, give folks information, communicate openly, these are pretty practical things to do to get people up to speed with new equipment and new processes," explains Gibberd. "But you need to reinforce that approach with your overall business priorities.
So, yes, we will send staff up to Ross, or down to L.A., for system specific training, and then connect that training to the business goals when you get back home."

* * *

As mentioned, the new facility provides several benefits for the corporation, and not just from a high quality signal production and delivery perspective, as Viner points out:

"One of the benefits of moving to this location is the way it contributes to the Rogers culture," he says. "We benefit from cross-sharing, cross-promotion, with staff from various operating areas in one location. Idea exchange, the sort of thing that happens in an informal manner walking down the hall, or having lunch in the cafeteria, is incredibly important to our team. We shouldn’t downplay the time spent getting to know one another, getting to trust one another, as a value contribution to the company. We get a lot of knowledge and learning from the informal synergies here."

In many ways, the informal learning has never stopped. Over the past ten years, Sportsnet’s management and staff have learned at the very least to be patient, to understand that you might not get where you want to go in a straight line.

Beeforth often cites an old line from Mark Twain, who talked about the good ol’ days of steam boat navigation on the Mississippi. ‘You navigate to the next turn’ the advice goes, ‘and once you get there, you navigate to the next turn.’

Use whatever maps, information, knowledge, you have, and once you get a little closer, you will see a little further down river, to the bend at least.

Asked how far that the next bend was, in terms of strategic business planning, Beeforth replies, "Maybe three years. Once Sportsnet gets a business plan approved, we are given the authority to operate our business as we see fit, so we can be nimble enough when chance comes along."

There are some things you can take forward, Beeforth notes, which can be seen as certain – as much as anything can be certain on this winding river called sports broadcasting.

"In ten years, there will not be fewer sports out there. In ten years, there will be more avenues for distribution of those sports than there are now. There will be more opportunities for fans to be interactive to an extent that we can’t even imagine today!"

Hard to imagine that ten years ago this fledgling broadcaster would be on a list of some of the great business success stories in Canada, and the fact that – as Beeforth is proud to say – "Sportsnet would be on that list!"

He rightly describes it as "the most successful specialty launch in history in Canada" and that the sports service "got to profitability faster than any other channel."

But Beeforth has another unique take on the valuation of the service: "My perspective, if you ask others, they would not refute it, is that if Sportsnet had not launched, at least two or three of the Canadian NHL teams today would not be in Canada! And the teams themselves would be among those who would not refute it. The fact that we came along, and became a revenue stream for them, and a way for them to build their brands, well, if that hadn’t happened, we might be back to two or three teams here."

There may be no way to prove his assertion, but if the Canadian sports fan appreciates sports on TV for any reason, that should be a big one.

Over the years, Sportsnet has become not only the number one sports channel in a significant number of locations in Canada, it has become a ubiquitous brand across the country.

But, as Beeforth cautions, "We cannot sit on the bench, and sit on our laurels. I think any business that looked back over ten years, and had the same kind of successful impact in the industry as we have. I think they would be very pleased with what they had accomplished. For something that didn’t exist ten years ago, it is now a very important part of the Canadian sport landscape."

* * *

Think back 10 years, back to the start of Sportsnet. Were you predicting sports highlights over your cell phone? If so, some people probably called you ‘nuts’.

Another, more fitting and appropriate description, would be ‘visionary’.

As Ted Rogers is known for saying, "Stay tuned. The best is yet to come!"

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