Hockey Goes Digital in Canada With $4.9 Billion NHL TV Deal

Rogers Communications is betting that offering more league games on more devices and platforms over the next 12 years will be gospel to Canadians.

TORONTO – Hockey is Canada's religion, goes the cry.

And the NHL's 12-year, CAN$5.2 billion (US$4.9 billion) broadcast deal with Rogers Communications unveiled on Tuesday aims to ensure even more Canadians celebrate mass each Saturday night.

"We have Rogers committing every platform they have, saying this is the most important entertainment content in the country, and not just sports content, and saying they expect to grow that content over time, along with the league," NHL COO John Collins told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday after the landmark broadcast deal was unveiled in Toronto.

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In Canada, God's work is really done on Saturday nights, where the CBC has aired Hockey Night in Canada for 61 years. With the new NHL agreement, the CBC will still air its double-header of games, and playoff and Stanley Cup championship games each spring. But Rogers will now control the iconic Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, and air more games on Saturday night, including on its City conventional network, and on its Sportsnet and Sportsnet 360 cable sports channels. And that proliferation of hockey across the Canadian TV dial and on a host of digital platforms suits the NHL as it looks to grow the game in Canada.

"Our experience has been that, with more lines of distribution, with more promotion, where people are talking about hockey, the bigger it (the league) generally gets," Collins said.

Besides Rogers' marketing juggernaut, Collins added that the Canadian media giant's expanding lines of distribution, whether TV, radio or downloads to mobile phones and tablets, allows the NHL to raise its profile and ambitions north of the border. In addition to traditional media, Rogers will operate and distribute the NHL Center Ice and NHL Game Center Live packages in Canada.

"When you take something as important as hockey is in Canada, and marry that with the biggest wireless providers, and one of the biggest media companies in the country, and they're willing to commit all of its platforms to grow the sport, it's a really exciting opportunity and partnership," Collins said.

Packing a marketing and distribution punch earlier worked for the NHL with its new 10-year, $2 billion deal that the NBC Sports Group signed in 2011.

Collins said it's natural that all NHL playoff and Stanley Cup games would be broadcast nationally in Canada. But that's only happened now with NBC, NBC Sports Network, CNBC and NHL Network carrying the NHL playoff and championship rounds content each spring.

"We saw a huge increase in ratings, a huge increase in engagement," Collins added.

In addition, Rogers' cross-platform technology will allow more league-wide viewing by Canadians when as many as 10 games could be scheduled on any one night, including a host in distant U.S. markets.

"You may be a fan of one team, but there are other games happening and other storylines emerging," Collins explained.

The benefit for the NHL is: If the Stanley Cup championship round has two teams you haven't watched, you might not tune in for the benefit of advertisers and sponsors.

"Where everything is so competitive, and there's such a fine line between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs, we've seen clubs come out of nowhere to make runs for the Stanley Cup," Collins recalled.

And the other side of the coin are NHL clubs in the U.S. market, including those struggling to fill seats during the regular season, that can be encouraged by hockey-mad Canada where teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs consistently sell out games, including corporate boxes.

"So providing that halo on top of the sport underlines a lot of the growth potential. And that will allow us to grow the (players) cap, and will allow us to continue investing in new ideas and platforms," Collins argued.

The long-term NBC and Rogers deals covering North America also come as the NHL eyes international expansion, especially given growing fan support in Europe.

"As big as hockey is in Canada, as big as Hockey Night is, as important as hockey is here, we still see a lot of opportunity for growth, both among current fans and new Canadians who haven't grown up with the sport," Collins insisted.