Friday, August 31, 2012

Rogers gets back into curling

Yesterday’s announcement that Rogers was buying the Grand Slam of Curling had to be good news for the curling community. For the past year, the Slams were on thin ice, before finally crashing through just prior to the third leg in Dawson Creek. That’s when the CBC pulled the plug on broadcasting the event and the curling world learned what most of the competitors, sponsors and those close to the championships had been dealing with for most of that year: the Grand Slams were in a dire financial situation.

I am still talking to folks today about the background on that part of the story and I’ll save that for another day.

Today, however, is about a new life for the Slams and it comes with the backing of one of the largest players in sports media. It’s important to remember that not only is Sportsnet broadcasting the Grand Slams . . . It Now Owns Them! It will operate the event on all levels, from putting in the ice to selling tickets to awarding the prize money.

And it will show a lot more of the games than ever before. Across its various platforms, Sportsnet will show two to three draws a day of each Slam, handing off the final and possibly semi-final to CBC. That's likely because Sportsnet would already have weekend commitments with higher-profile sporting events.

For Sportsnet, it gets some much-needed daytime content and ownership of a significant property. Live televised sports is like gold for broadcasters. In a world where so few shows are actually watched live, where DVR penetration is in excess of 35 per cent and where On-Demand is so prevalent, sports is a shining light. It’s why rights fees command big bucks.

For the curlers, it’s a big sigh of relief. Brent Laing, who was at the presser yesterday, told me that when he stepped off the ice at last year’s Players Championship, he was pretty worried about the future of the Grand Slams. Rightly so. The players had much more intimate knowledge of the financial situation and were briefed often by WCT president Pierre Charette (who should be given huge credit for not only keeping last year on the rails, but moving this year forward).

Kevin Martin, who was also in the room at Real Sports yesterday, said he wasn’t worried because he knew the Grand Slams were a good property. Still, curlers aren’t the best at running their own show and without a major player to organize things, it’s likely the Slams would have been dead if Rogers or a similar outfit didn’t take hold.

The details on the first year are still unfolding. According to Scott Moore, this deal was in the works at different levels for some time but really didn’t get hot until the last two weeks or so. Understandably, details such as arenas and dates aren’t firmed up with the exception of the first stop, the Sun Life event in Brantford.

This is about the only part of the deal that I think is lousy. Essentially, the first Slam is an existing event, and a good one at that. So there’s one less stop on the World Curling Tour for this year.
The second event is still up in the air and all we know about the third event is that it will be held in downtown Toronto. Moore said negotiations are on-going but not to the point where he can make any kind of announcement. The rumour has it going into the old Maple Leaf Gardens, which is now the home of Ryerson University’s hockey teams.

Each event will have a minimum of $100,000 purse and the first and third will have both men’s and women’s events at the same time.

With all the good news, it’s important to remember that there are still a lot of fall out from the previous regime. People and companies weren’t paid for their work on the Slams last year. While the players got their cheques (eventually), some folks were left empty, some folks who can’t really afford to lose that kind of money and some folks who were good for curling.

But overall, it has to be a good day for curling.

A few final notes:

* Dave Tredgett, who will produce the broadcasts for Sportsnet, said he hasn’t decided on a broadcast team yet but has some ideas in place. Here's hoping Mike Harris is part of that new team.

* There will be 34 men’s and 34 women’s teams at the Brantford event.

* Charette said he hopes the year’s first event will be held in the same location every year (i.e. Brantford), just like golf’s Masters, and use it as a kick off to the season.

* Moore added that in future years, he’d love to see four or eight or even more events on the Sportsnet schedule.

* Even Bob McCown showed up for the press conference. The high-profile radio talk show host has been known to throw a few rocks now and then. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grand Slam gets life

According to Al Cameron in the Herald, Rogers Sportsnet will announce it’s getting back into the curling business.

There’s a presser called for 11 a.m. Thursday at which the sports broadcaster is expected to say it’s taking over the Grand Slam events.

George Karrys at The Curling News, says CBC is also involved to some extent.

One source told me that the plan will call for Sportsnet to air round-robin games with CBC stepping in to do the finals, much as in the old days of the Brier where TSN did the round robin and CBC the playoffs.

The news comes after a summer of negotiations between iSport and its head, Kevin Albrecht, and Sportsnet. It’s believed the WCT Players Association and Capital One, the series’ major sponsor, were also involved.

Multiple sources told me that Albrecht turned down at least one offer from Sportsnet earlier in the summer and was playing hardball with the property. Of course it’s rumoured that Albrecht’s firm was in financial distress stemming from a poorly attended music festival his company put on. CBC pulled the plug on the Grand Slam broadcasts last year after it said its bills weren’t being paid. Albrecht disputed those claims from CBC.

ISport did put the final Grand Slam event in Summerside, PEI on the air, using a makeshift crew and airing on Global TV. As well, while prize cheques were slow to arrive, all the players were paid.

If indeed this is the end of Albrecht’s association with curling, it will be after a long history of helping the players. When Albrecht was with IMG, he organized a large group of curlers into a de facto assocaition, which led to the famous boycott of the Brier. It was that move that created the Grand Slam (which was, coincidentally, aired on Sportsnet) as well as forcing the hand of the Canadian Curling Association to acquiesce to at least some player demands. But it’s clear he’s lost his way with those same players.

With Rogers taking over the Grand Slam, the curlers will get some stability and a company that can cross-promote it with other properties such as its radio network, website and Sportsnet magazine.

And with former TSN curling producers Keith Pelley and Scott Moore holding the two most senior positions in the media side of Rogers, it’s no surprise that curling joins the fold on Sportsnet. Whether it will be able to draw significant audiences is the next question to be asked. CBC curling audiences for the Grand Slam were good but as a major broadcaster, it could air a tiddlywinks championship and get a significant audience.

For the curlers, it’s a big relief. As one world-class player told me earlier this year, after all the work to create and establish the Grand Slam, to suddenly lose it would be a massive step backwards. That’s not to mention, as Cameron points out, the implications it would have on the Olympic Trial playdown process.

We’ll know more on Friday at 11.