A plan to return Ron MacLean to the host’s chair at Hockey Night in Canada, which might have seemed nearly impossible not long ago, sheds new light on the influence professional sports leagues enjoy with their broadcasting partners.
Though there are numerous details to be ironed out before a deal can be sealed, Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet and holds the NHL’s national broadcast rights in Canada, is looking to replace current host George Stroumboulopoulos after two years on the job, bringing back his predecessor, MacLean, a proven and familiar presence on the program.
Before the switch could proceed, a source says, Rogers sought and received the approval of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who signalled during the Stanley Cup final he wouldn’t oppose the move.
Rogers struck a landmark 12-year, $5.2-billion deal with the NHL in late 2013, giving the communications giant sweeping hockey broadcast rights, but as Canadian teams have struggled on the ice, so have ratings on television.
Multiple sources agreed that Rogers would have run the move by Bettman, while one person with knowledge of the company’s relationship with the NHL said it would have been an informal courtesy, rather than a contractual obligation. Even so, with a decade left on the contract, the power Bettman would wield in his response is considered very real, especially as a fractious relationship with MacLean was believed to have contributed to Rogers’s decision to turn to the younger, hipper Stroumboulopoulos two seasons ago.
Asked on Monday whether Rogers would have to consult with Bettman or the NHL to get its agreement before changing hosts on Hockey Night in Canada – informally or contractually – Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties at Rogers, replied in an e-mail, “We are not commenting on the speculation at all at this time.”
Neither Bettman nor NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly responded to requests for comment.
Three sources said the approach to Bettman would likely have been made by either Moore or Rick Brace, president of Rogers Media. Brace is known to have a good rapport with Bettman.
A broadcast source who knows all of the principals and has dealt with Bettman over television contracts said, in practice, it is common for TV networks to float their choices for major positions, like Hockey Night host, with the league – its partner in a multi-billion-dollar pact.
Industry insiders agree Rogers must feel a compelling need to shake up the program, likely in response to audience testing. Both Bettman and Rogers CEO Guy Laurence were widely believed to be supporters of Stroumboulopoulos and his work on Hockey Night – at least in the early stages. The rumours of a wider shakeup, possibly including job cuts as soon as next week, have left many Rogers and Sportsnet employees feeling uneasy.
With billions of dollars changing hands each year for the rights to air live sports that are – in the eyes of many – the surest bet to attract viewers in a shifting TV industry, broadcast executives and league officials must balance the need for independent coverage with an interest in working together to maximize each side’s return on their investment.
“A big part of the broadcast is the talent, and ultimately, the leagues may not have significant input, let alone veto power. But I do believe there are discussions,” said Tom Richardson, president of Convergence Sports & Media and a professor of sports management at Columbia University, who has worked for the NHL and NFL. “There are very few surprises that are sprung on each other in that world. … So is it conceivable that [Rogers] conferred with the NHL? I think that happens sometimes.”
MacLean’s on-air clashes with Bettman during periods of NHL labour unrest are well documented. But he is hardly the only high-profile sports broadcaster to run afoul of league executives. Commentator Bill Simmons was suspended from ESPN, which has an eight-year, $15.2-billion (U.S.) rights deal for Monday Night Football with the National Football League, for calling league commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” in 2014. Simmons ultimately left the network.
Conversations with members of Rogers staff, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, reveal there is concern that MacLean could once again wield the behind-the-scenes power over Hockey Night as many believed he did when the CBC produced the program. MacLean, who declined comment, has protested in the past that this was perception more than reality.
A return to MacLean could be seen as a safe bet for Rogers, and a concession to longstanding, diehard viewers who complained about the new format led by Stroumboulopoulos. Yet a key lingering question, should the switch be confirmed, is whether MacLean would be any less strident this time around, and how he might interact with Bettman on air.
Stroumboulopoulos has not responded to requests for comment.
Ever since Rogers sealed its 12-year deal, company executives have talked repeatedly about their strong partnership with the NHL.
In a May 2015 interview, Laurence said his staff and the league’s are in touch “daily” to share data and iron out logistical issues, but added, “to be clear, that’s not because they sit in some kind of policing role.”
In a separate interview that same month, Bettman said: “We don’t try to exercise editorial control.”
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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