I had a chat with former hockey columnist, HNIC panelist and Hockey Hall of Fame writer Al Strachan on Tuesday. I asked Strachan if Rogers and Bell will take HNIC away from the CBC when the network's current deal runs out in 2014:
The combine [that's how Strachan refers to Rogers and Bell] is almost certain to get HNiC. After all, they own the team. They own the building in which it plays. They own national sports networks in a hockey-mad country. Why would they give the single most valuable TV sports property to another network?
Strachan points out that the cost of the HNIC rights means little to "the combine." He calls it "a bookkeeping entry" that goes "from one pocket into another."
From a political standpoint, he believes CBC faces an uphill battle. Strachan thinks the government-funded CBC would have a difficult time with the Canadian public, particularly "the left wing" if the HNIC talks turn into a bidding war. They would argue that money spent on a hockey broadcast should pay for social programs not subsidies for "millionaires."
While Strachan expects an initial nationwide uproar if the CBC loses "part of the country's heritage," he argues it would peter out once "it becomes apparent that the combine presents a better broadcast than CBC."
And, of course, by adding more Leafs games, particularly on Saturday nights, Rogers and Bell could use the Leafs to leverage other media properties. Strachan sees a scenario unfolding where the two companies "link packages" and turn the screws on consumers:
Right now, for instance, if you want TSN HD, you must also buy [the NBA's Toronto] Raptors-TV which has infinitesimal ratings outside of southern Ontario. So your choice is to watch the Leafs on a fuzzy picture or watch them in HD and pay for Raptors TV which no one watches. However, because it has lots of subscribers, Raptors-TV can charge high ad rates. It's all a very complex scenario but the bottom line is that it's a gold mine.
And that's the key for investors: "it's a gold mine."
Without HNIC, Rogers and Bell are buys. Both companies continue to increase their dividends and buy back stock. They're cash cows that dominate practically everything that matters in a nation -- wireless, Internet, television, radio, sports, you name it.
If "the combine" takes HNIC away from the CBC, it becomes nothing short of complete and total domination. Don't expect the Canadian government to squash the move. In a supposed "socialist country" (according to
), Rogers and Bell have enjoyed the closest thing to laissez faire government North America has to offer. Canada's dealings, at least with respect to Rogers and Bell, make the U.S. look like Cuba.
If you're going to invest in the media space, take a long hard look at the companies that control the most premium content, the most important sports and entertainment franchises and the key modes of delivery in a region (e.g.,
Madison Square Garden
) or a nation. Very few strong choices exist in America. That's not the case in Canada where RCI and BCE should be nothing short of no-brainers to American investors.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.