Rogers Monopoly on NHL Broadcasting Will Hurt Working-Class Fans Hardest
It’s never a good sign when the papers carry a picture of Gary Bettman grinning like an idiot.
The multi-millionaire commissioner of the National Hockey League is the human representative of the collective soulless greed of the extraordinarily wealthy owners of NHL franchises, and if they’re happy, it usually means that they’ve found a new way to squeeze money from their workers, their players, or – more likely – everyone else.
Sure enough, the announcement of a massive $5.2 billion broadcasting deal between the NHL and the Rogers corporate colossus is a victory for the rich, at the expense of we who make them rich. Though most of the attention this story received was about the fate of Hockey Night in Canada and the CBC more broadly, what was ignored was the effect this will have on working people in Canada.
In a nutshell, the deal works as follows: Rogers pays the team owners in order to gain exclusive rights to the broadcasting of most NHL hockey games across a variety of different media. Team owners will share some of this cash with their players, to buy a bit of labour peace, but will pocket most of it as a reward for their “hard work.” In order to profit from this, Rogers will likely develop a variety of expensive cable and internet packages that will charge hockey fans more than they are used to paying in order to see their favourite teams. And since Rogers will have next-to-no competition, consumers will have little choice but to pay more, or abandon watching hockey. In effect, then, it is yet another transfer of wealth from the pockets of the poor to the ledgers of the rich.
Hockey Night in “Canada”
So what will this mean for the iconic CBC broadcast, Hockey Night in Canada? The program televises two games each Saturday night featuring Canadian teams and typically follows most of the Canadian franchises through the playoffs. It is the CBC’s most popular program – arguably a centrepiece of Canadian television – and it brings to mind all of the mythologies that embody the supposed Canadian identity.
But let’s be honest: the Canadian identity promoted by Hockey Night in Canada is predominantly white, male, and middle class. At best, people of colour appear on the program as occasional proofs of Canadian “multiculturalism;” Ron MacLean represents white Canada’s “tolerance” as he tells the against-all-odds stories of players like P.K. Subban, one of a handful of non-white players in the league. At worst, it reinforces white stereotypes of people of colour – for instance, by painting Indigenous player Jordan Tootoo as “undisciplined” and “unsportsmanlike” – and gives a platform to the lunatic and racist ravings of Don Cherry.
Women are systematically tokenised by the program; in addition to the obvious fact that only men’s hockey is part of the actual programming, the telecast typically features one or two women as minor TV personalities who never participate in the critical discussion panels, but are occasionally called upon to conduct an interview or plug the CBC website. This reached an apex of absurdity last season when Don Cherry screamed from his pulpit that women were “not equal” to men and shouldn’t be allowed to do interviews in team locker rooms, only 30 seconds before the telecast was turned over to Cassie Campbell-Pascall, formerly one of Canada’s elite hockey players, who now primarily recites insignificant statistics as ‘filler’ between Hockey Night in Canada features.
Finally, the entire presentation of “Canada’s Game” is the story of middle class white families. Playing elite hockey is now a luxury reserved only for children of wealthy parents who can afford all the equipment, the camps, and the clinics, so the players’ stories tend to sound the same, and the greatest hardships they faced are usually early mornings and tough training sessions. The program doesn’t have much room to talk about people who work three jobs just to pay the bills, or who face constant and daily racism that keeps them locked in working poverty and precarity.
CBC’s romantic picture of Canadian kindness, community, and pond hockey looks nothing like the experience of the majority of Canadians. So mourning the now-inevitable decline of Hockey Night in Canada seems a little misguided. In fact, all the emphasis on the Canadian tradition has distracted us from the larger problem here.
Rogers and Me
For all its drawbacks, Hockey Night in Canada is the only way to watch the game free of charge; I watch in my apartment with just a TV and antenna. In order to see games carried by corporate broadcasters like TSN and Rogers, people have to order expensive cable packages, which can run anywhere from $50 to $150 a month, depending on the package. It is likely that Rogers will now force consumers to buy even more expensive packages in order to see their favourite teams, worried as it is that people are beginning to shift away from cable TV in the era of internet downloading.
The effect of this will be felt most by working people and families. For better or worse, hockey is a significant part of the lives of many working people, including those who aren’t represented by the game’s mythology. Sports, in general, continue to excite the imaginations of people from a variety of class backgrounds and, given the centrality of hockey in Canadian national consciousness, it is no surprise that working people often take solace and refuge from our daily struggles in the enjoyment of following our favourite teams in a fundamentally frivolous pursuit: putting a puck in a net.
The simplicity of the game can be a break from the complicated aggravations we go through from day to day, from deciphering credit card fee statements, to staying on the boss’s good side, to finding safe and affordable day care for our kids, to plugging the leak in the sink. Sport gives us a temporary outlet from life’s harsh realities. It gives us something simple to share with our friends and co-workers. For first- and second-generation immigrant families, it can be a way of engaging with a new, often hostile, community. For many of us, it is simply exciting and entertaining.
This shouldn’t lead us to romanticize professional hockey: it is still fundamentally a violent, patriarchal, elitist reflection of the racist Canadian ruling class. But it is still an enjoyable distraction for many working people, who make up the majority of the NHL fan base. It is working people who will then be most directly hurt by the Rogers deal, which represents a direct transfer of wealth from the poor and relatively poor to the already-astronomically wealthy.
Tyler Shipley teaches at Humber College and is the editor of Left Hook. He watches Hockey Night in Canada for free with an antenna pointed at the CN Tower. This article was originally published by BASICS Community News.