NHL, Rogers and Shaw deserve a call for how they treat their clients.
As spring continues to heat up, the playoffs begin to heat up as well. We've already started witnessing hockey fans jumping boats to cheer for the future Stanley Cup champions, while committed Oilers fans will skulk off muttering about high hopes for retribution next season. 2016 is one of those rare years where no Canadian teams has qualified for the playoffs. That being said, there are a lot of Canadian players on American teams, so a win for them is indirectly a win for us - kind of. For many fans, hockey season is the best time of year, but for some it's bittersweet. That's not because their favourite team is losing - it's because of the blackouts.
Every team on the NHL plays 82 regular season games. This results in a total of 1,230 games broadcasted every regular season. It should be noted that not all of the games are broadcasted in the same way. Some games are broadcasted nationally, and others are broadcasted regionally. Out-of-Market and In-Market concepts only apply to the regional games, as blackouts only occur for these games. For example, if you live in Vancouver, you're In-Market for the Canucks, but if but you're an Oilers or Leafs fan, then you are Out-of-Market and cannot view the regionally aired Oilers or Leafs games. To most fans in these kinds of situations, the blackouts are unnecessary and even an inconvenience, which warrants questioning their purpose. If blackouts aren't for consumers, who are they for?
Blackouts are designed to protect the ratings of the network that owns the broadcasting rights for the local team. Set up by the NHL decades ago, what was originally designed to protect local ratings has become a giant headache for consumers, who seem to lose out more than the broadcasters. The design of the framework causes a majority of regular-season games of any team to be broadcast only within that team's designated region, or In-Market. Essentially, if you live in Vancouver, the NHL wants you to cheer for your local team, not the Oilers or the Leafs. The Canucks basically own your viewership because you're in their territory, and they feel it's their right to receive your ratings and support. It sounds a little crazy, but that's the logic behind it.
The NHL is the biggest player in blackout arrangement. After being founded in 1917, following the suspension of the NHA, the NHL has been the organizer of the hockey we've known and loved for nearly a century. Other major players are the broadcasters, such as Sportsnet, ESPN, and TSN.
So who is owned by who? The answer is straightforward. TSN is owned by Bell Media, with a small share held by ESPN, whereas Sportsnet is owned by Rogers Communications. This leaves ESPN, which is owned by ESPN Inc. - a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company and the Hearst Corporation. Another network that broadcasts hockey is the CBC. As the broadcaster of Hockey Night in Canada, one would assume that it would be one of the major players in the blackouts, but this is no longer true. In 2013, the CBC signed a 4-year deal with Rogers Communications that permitted it to air Hockey Night in Canada. This followed the 12-year, $5.2 billion deal with the NHL that Rogers Communications signed in 2013.
This doesn't mean Mickey Mouse is out to get hockey lovers, however. As mentioned previously, the biggest player in the blackouts is the NHL. They are the the ones who put it into play, leaving the networks scrambling in an attempt to profit.
What can I do?
If you have a lot of free time and a spare couple of grand laying around, you could do what a group of hockey lovers did and launch a class action lawsuit against the NHL. Unfortunately, not many people have the resources or desire to go that far. As consumers - the people who create a market for the sport - why should we get second best? While the answer is that we should't, unless thousands of disgruntled hockey fans start speaking out against the blackouts to try to coerce the NHL into changing blackout regulations, change may not be possible.
An easy, fast solution for hockey lovers wanting to avoid blackouts is Rogers Game Centre Live. There is one major catch, however. If your provider is Bell, Shaw, or a company that isn't Telus Optik, Rogers, or Videotron, then blackouts will not be lifted though you've paid for the service. Before you get worked up and call it a complete rip off, you can still technically use the service.
The service explicitly states that you only view the blackout games through TV authentication, which requires that your provider be Telus Optik, Videotron, or Rogers. So, what do you do if your TV provider is not supported, but you would like them to be? Rogers representatives claim that any TV provider is welcome to become a provider at no cost - you just have to request it! Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, upon asking a Shaw representative, they were understandably confused by the whole concept. In fact, they initially said it wasn't up to them - it was up to the NHL. Upon further prodding, however, Shaw said they could "take my request and suggest they become a provider". Huh? If they claim the NHL is in charge, why would they take my request as a suggestion for something they should provide? Maybe it's just confusion on part of both parties, but it's evident that this there's no clear resolution for this conundrum.
If you feel passionate enough about it, however, then you should definitely contact your TV provider and make a request. If enough people take actions, changes will follow, and Rogers Game Centre might allow more than just a select few to access hockey season in its entirety.
The bottom line is is that blackouts do not benefit the consumer. The logic behind blackouts is - at best - minimally reasonable. However, this is 2016. With numerous online streaming options (both legal and illegal), online services (Rogers Game Centre Live and Sportsnet Now), and cable subscribers going down each year, shouldn't the NHL be pursuing a way to make the big bucks? Why wouldn't the NHL pursue an online streaming service that doesn't require you to have cable? As the number of cable cutters rise each year, it's smart for any company to provide an online streaming option that doesn't require a cable subscription.
How many people illegally stream Out-of-Market games? How much money is being lost? How many viewers are being lost to illegal viewing methods because the NHL is making the consumer's life more difficult? Those answers are unclear, but suffice to say that online message boards dedicated to frustrations with being able to watch hockey reveal that many people prefer the easiest and not necessarily legal solutions. Why do we have to settle for a sub-par system? Hopefully, the NHL will join us in the 21st century soon, and provide fans with easily-accessible ways of viewing the hockey they love.
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