As Canadian NHL Ratings Slide, 'Hockey Night in Canada' Dumps Host

George Stroumboulopoulos Getty H 2016
Getty Images

George Stroumboulopoulos Getty H 2016

George Stroumboulopoulos has been replaced by Ron MacLean, who hosted HNIC for 30 years until he was demoted two years ago to make way for a younger host with skinny suits and earrings for younger viewers.

The unthinkable has happened in hockey-mad Canada.

TV ratings for the National Hockey League are down. Way down. So much so that TV hockey's downwards slip-slide has led Rogers Communications, which two years ago signed a 12-year, $5.2 billion exclusive rights deal with the NHL, to fire George Stroumboulopoulos as host of the famed Hockey Night in Canada franchise.

Stroumboulopoulos has been replaced by Ron MacLean, who hosted HNIC for 30 years until he was demoted two years ago to make way for a younger host with skinny suits and earrings for younger viewers. It hasn't helped that the Toronto Maple Leafs are tanking and no Canadian NHL team challenged for the Stanley Cup, making it an all-American affair.

For Rogers, the gamble to go beyond loyal hockey fans to attract millennials with a younger HNIC host backfired.

“Two years ago, we made some changes to Hockey Night in Canada. We were enthusiastic about the changes, but at the end of the day they did not resonate with hardcore hockey fans,” Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties at Rogers, said last week during a news conference call to announce the decision to bring back MacLean.

A smoking gun is Stroumboulopoulos — a former CBC talk show host who had short-lived gigs hosting ABC's The One: Making of a Music Star and a CNN talker in 2013  not being judged a hockey expert by loyal HNIC fans. That's unlike MacLean, the known, popular and loyal insider now reclaiming Canada's biggest TV hockey chair.

"George Stroumboulopoulos is an appealing and competent TV host, but he remained the outsider on the panels and interviews. We do not think that is the right strategy for maintaining hardcore hockey viewers or capturing and growing new ones," Brahm Eiley, president of the market research company Convergence Consulting Group, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Roger's hosting switch for HNIC recalls NBC bringing in Conan O'Brien to lure younger viewers to The Tonight Show, only in 2010 to bring Jay Leno back as host to retain loyal fans. Former MSNBC and ESPN host Keith Olbermann quickly dismissed Ron MacLean as "Leno2" on his Twitter account.

"The decision to replace @strombo as host of @hockeynight is the dumbest thing I've seen in 36 years in TV sports," Olbermann tweeted. But, ratings concerns aside, the hosting change at Hockey Night in Canada underscores a deeper concern for Rogers.

Canadian millennials still watch live sports  on TV, the Internet, their phones and on social media. But young Canadians just aren't as attracted to TV hockey as their parents, and increasingly embrace the NBA, including the surging Toronto Raptors, and soccer in Europe and North America.

"Hockey may be a defining sport in Canada, and with a remarkable legacy, but its dominance on our culture has been eroding for some time, especially when you look at it in the context of NHL," market researcher Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group, told the Hollywood Reporter.

Sure, a gold-medal hockey game pitting Team Canada against Team U.S.A. or another hockey power, will draw half the country around their TV sets. But is a regular season NHL game in January must-see TV?

"Not really and ratings are really beginning to show that in the past two years," Yigit added. By contrast, the NFL's Super Bowl championship game broke the all-time record with Canadian viewers in 2015, and delivered the second-highest ever audience last year on CTV.

And the recent Toronto Raptors-Cleveland Cavaliers game four playoff game attracted an all-time record average audience of 1.8 million viewers on TSN, a rival TV sports channel, making it Canada’s most-watched basketball game ever. Sportsnet also pivoted this summer to airing and promoting Toronto Blue Jay games, a success story for Rogers that drives high TV ratings and ticket sales.

NHL demographics are also working against Rogers and its TV hockey product. The mean age of the NHL's Canadian TV viewer is 47 years, younger than the Canadian Football League and PGA Golf, but older than the NFL, and much older than NBA and Major League Soccer.

And younger Canadians are increasingly not watching entire NHL games, and instead get scores and highlights on their phone or online. "Now, you can be on Twitter or Instagram, with no TV near you, and people post the score, describe the plays and someone posts a Vine of a big play. So outside of hard-core fans, secondary audiences don’t have to tune into the traditional TV feed as much to be in the know," Yigit said.

That leaves the NHL in a ratings hole in Canada, as much as expensive rights-holder Rogers, in having to battle changing consumer habits and preferences to stay relevant with TV sport viewers. "We’re aware the way people watch our great game is changing. Younger viewers are going online," Rogers' Moore told reporters last week during his conference call.