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Canucks: Radio rights remain a question mark with pre-season around the corner

NHL team may pursue option of streaming their broadcasts on the web if a deal doesn’t get done

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Five months after it seemed the Vancouver Canucks and Sportsnet 650 were set to renew their radio broadcasting rights deal, nothing has been finalized.

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No official announcement has been made and no one is commenting officially on the situation.

The only news that’s come forth since late February, when the feeling was that a new two-year deal was imminent, is that Corey Hirsch — who had served as color commentator since Sportsnet snatched the radio rights away from the former TSN 1040 in 2017 — was not returning for the 2022-23 season.

Meaghann Cox, a spokesperson for Sportsnet, said the broadcaster had nothing to share at this time. The Canucks also said they had no comment on their radio rights situation.

That said, Postmedia understands staff at the station have continued to plan for the season ahead, operating as if they will be broadcasting when pre-season games start in late September.

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Brian Wiebe, head of BCIT’s radio arts and entertainment program, agreed the situation is very curious.

“Who’s the color commentator? There’s a lot of question marks.”

He recalled his days working at radio stations in Merritt, where he was involved with radio broadcasts of the local BCHL team, the Merritt Centennials.

“We didn’t sell hockey ads in September, our broadcast ad blocks were sold in June,” he said. “It’s really tough to wait till September. It sucks for everyone involved to say ‘hey we have three weeks to sell it.’”

In the last ratings book before Sportsnet’s 650 rival station TSN 1040 was suddenly closed in February 2021, 1040’s share of male listeners aged 25-54, the crucial ad-sales demographic for sports radio, remained reasonable, about 6.5. As a comparison point, the station posted at 7.7 in the final three months of 2011, an era when the team was among the best in the league.

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Nonetheless Bell Media, the owners of 1040, concluded there wasn’t a future for the station and shut the doors in February 2021.

Rogers Sports and Media, owners of AM650, have pressed on. The station picked up some of 1040’s previous listenership, posting a 5.7 share in the first three months of 2022 among male listeners aged 24-54, which is about three times bigger than 650 was pulling when there were two sports radio stations in Vancouver.

But share is a percentage of listeners, not a raw total. And since so few people have home radios anymore and listeners have a multitude of listening options in their car — streaming podcasts and music via your phone, or in-car satellite radio the two most obvious examples — it’s a reasonable assumption that the total number of radio listeners at any given moment is down from a decade ago, when radio’s only in-car alternatives remained CDs and MP3 players.

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Streaming numbers aren’t publicly shared, though AM650 has told Postmedia in the past they are happy with the volume of downloads and streams of their shows.

Adam Seaborn, a Toronto-based media analyst who works as head of partnerships for Playmaker, a digital sports media branding agency, has his doubts about whether this all adds up to a viable future for conventional sports radio.

“I think of this purely as a technology story, I don’t think there’s any less interest in listening to sports. They’re just not listening to traditional radio like they used to. The landscape has obviously changed a lot over the last couple years. The question is what is good and what is better?

Teams are want to draw fans to their main event, where they can sell tickets and merchandise. Failing that they can at least get fans to watch on TV, where ad time remains a lucrative source of revenue.

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“I don’t think (radio) is part of the main event anymore,” Seaborn said.

NHL teams build revenue through the national TV deal with Sportsnet, which was negotiated by the league and runs for another four years, and, traditionally, local TV and radio rights.

The Canucks’ local TV deal with Sportsnet expires next summer.

The local broadcast deals have long had understandable appeal, Seaborn said.

“You get to say ‘we’re the official broadcaster of the Canucks’ and sell ads against that, but that only works if there’s a robust radio market,” he said.

“If there’s no healthy sports radio ecosystem, who is going to pay for the rights?”

And that may be where the Canucks find themselves.

“In this country, there isn’t a competitive radio market. For teams, if they’re going to monetize, they’re going to have to look at streaming.”

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Streaming audio still doesn’t capture the main-event audience, Seaborn argued, but it can serve as a promotional tool, similar to how teams now use social media.

The Los Angeles Kings have used streaming for their primary audio broadcast for several seasons now and the San Jose Sharks switched to streaming audio last year.

Seaborn wonders if that’s in the cards in the near future, if the Canucks can’t sell their radio rights for a number they consider worthwhile.

Streaming audio would bring their broadcast closer to where younger potential fans are. A broadcast should be helping to connect with new fans, Seaborn said.

“If no one is listening (to radio), how can I expand the marketplace? How can I sell tickets and merchandise? So maybe I bring it in house and I can generate incremental revenue, like with a presenting sponsor,” he said.

“It might make sense to control the whole vertical. If you own your own radio rights there’s lots of opportunity to monetize.”

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