TABLE OF CONTENTS Oct 2024 - 0 comments

From Rookie to Pro

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  • Giving sports fans what they want is a simple credo for The Sports Network, Canada's first all-sports television channel. It all seems so obvious now, as we look back over TSN's first 20 years in our homes.

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    By: Susan Tolusso and Greg O'Brien
    In 1984, back when sports fans had to suffer the likes of the Ewing, Carrington, Huxtable and Keaton families while killing time between games on TV, launching an all-sports network seemed like folly to many.

    Tsk-tsking old-style TV dogs couldn't fathom why a man who had risen to the top of sports television in Canada would chuck it all to launch a tiny new sports channel. And I mean really, who's going to watch sports all day and all night anyway? There's quite enough of it already on the broadcast channels.


    The new, existing pay TV movie channels were bleeding cash. One launched and went bankrupt within months. And those showed movies -- the tried and true content that all people love.

    So, did Canadians love sports enough to support a 24/7 channel dedicated to sticks, balls, pucks, bats and the sweaty (mostly) men who played with them for a living? This is what Gordon Craig -- who left his job at CBC Sports -- bet his career on (and what Labatt Breweries bet its millions on).

    The first thing Craig decided was that TSN was never going off the air. No matter what, it was a pay service and that meant people were paying for content all the time, not test patterns from midnight to 6 a.m.

    Twenty years ago, broadcast stations bascially went to sleep overnight and played "O Canada" at the end of their broadcast day, and again to kick off the following morning. TSN was to be different: On the air always. It wouldn't need a rendition of the song.

    Except for that one time.

    "It was a very nervous day for us all, that day we signed on," recalls TSN founding president Craig. "We were about an hour-and-a-half from signing on and I said to Michael Landsbury -- not Landsberg -- who was my vice-president of programming at the time... 'we better play the anthem', but he told me that we didn't have a national anthem on tape.' So I made a quick phone call to an old pal down at CBC and he stuck a copy of the anthem in a cab and shot it up, and we proudly signed on with the Canadian national anthem." And TSN has never played it since (except sometimes prior to games), because they've never signed off.

    TSN WAS A NEW WAY of doing things. A new way to think about programming. About sports. This had not been tried in Canada before. It was one thing to run and re-run movies all the time, as Superchannel and First Choice were doing (and as C Channel did for a short time). It was quite another to create so much original, often live programming.

    Thankfully, the whole schedule didn't have to be home-brewed. By 1984, American sports channel ESPN was five years old and still finding its way Stateside. Craig went to it for some imported programming in order to round out TSN's schedule (and years later, for some capital as a part-owner). After all, there were only so many Toronto Blue Jays games and highlight packages that could be shown here.

    And getting an agreement from ESPN was not exactly in the bag, just days from the launch -- heck, just minutes from the first press conference.

    "They were convinced earlier on that they were going to come into Canada unfettered, and just be carried, and I had to explain to them that that wasn't the way that it worked up here. You had to have a license," says Craig.

    "I had an agreement in principle, but not the details," he recalls of TSN's first ESPN programming deal. "The Friday before we signed on, we had a press reception to unveil our talent and our program schedule. I think that was scheduled for something like noon, and I was in my office next door to the boardroom, still trying to negotiate the details of the agreement.

    "I finally said, 'Look guys, I'm going in there and I'm going to tell them that we have an agreement in principle and that these programs will be in our schedule.' And they said, 'Okay. We know we're going to do business, so go ahead. We've got a deal.' That's a long time ago and I've got to tell you, ESPN has been a great partner ever since, both in a program supply position, and then later as an equity partner," says Craig.

    LOOKING BACK FROM THIS SIDE of the new millennium, Craig and some of the other TSN lifers may tell us the odds were heavily against the network succeeding -- about as likely in 1984 as the idea of the Edmonton Oilers ever trading Wayne Gretzky... -- but of the two services launched in September that year (MuchMusic was the other), joining the tiny cadre of pay-TV pioneers, TSN was holding the strongest hand.

    True, many of the key events and most popular spectator sports were airing on CBC, a national broadcaster with no monthly fee attached to its delivery. True as well, that for its first year at least, TSN was to be packaged with a pair of movie services on a pay-TV island with a subscription base not likely to rise far above the 350,000 already signed up. And those pay services had been losing money steadily.

    But we're talkin' sports here, people. Canadians have had a love-affair with sports through the 20th century, displaying a passion that galvanized isolated rural communities and city dwellers alike to cheer as loudly for their heroes in figure skating, skiing and track as they did for our hockey, baseball and football stars. By 1984, the relationship was heating up, fired by such events as the arrival of Gretzky and the Oilers at the pinnacle of hockey, the stellar showing by Canadians at the Los Angeles Olympics that summer and the building buzz around the steel wheels of Rick Hansen.

    Although TSN backers reckoned they might be slightly better positioned than MuchMusic, they did not suppose their shot at glory would be a slam dunk.

    "I had some terrific staff, but everybody was very, very skeptical," recalls Craig, looking back over TSN's genesis from his perspective as retired owner. It was Craig who had pitched the channel to the CRTC for first owner Labatt Communications in 1983, and then went on to be the network's first president and later, part-owner. "Everybody thought, 'who's going to watch sports 24 hours a day?'"

    But as Craig notes, Labatt wanted to integrate its businesses (it owned the Toronto Blue Jays and wanted them on TV more) and build its presence in sports properties. With the U.S. leading the way in specialty television and ESPN looking good by age three or four, a Canadian domestic sports channel seemed the logical choice for the brewer. "They owned all the baseball and NFL rights in Canada," Craig says. "They also were involved in the CFL and curling in Canada."

    A good starting point, to be sure, but with the Canadian market one-tenth the size of its American counterpart, significant audiences were far from sure. The CRTC approach to licensing non-broadcast channels back then wasn't helping matters, either. In fact, the TSN group had to face the fact that the Canadian realm of non-broadcast TV had been stained with red ink from its inception.

    Being carried only in that pay-TV package struck Craig as a less than ideal beginning for TSN. "Carriage was a problem. While we signed on as part of a pay television package, the good news that went along with that was that we immediately got something like 350,000 or 400,000 subscribers. The bad news was that the pricing of that package was in the $15-$20 range (per subscriber, per month), which meant that you weren't going anywhere very fast. And, you couldn't really convince the advertisers to get terribly enthusiastic about your product when you only had that sort of limited distribution."

    But there was one property, one distinctly Canadian sports franchise that has never failed to get those advertisers and viewers fired up.

    Post-launch, with winter fast approaching and the baseball season ending, TSN desperately wanted -- needed -- NHL hockey. However, the Labatt-owned channel was up against its arch-suds-rival Molson, which had a lock on the broadcast advertising rights for the NHL in Canada. But, back then it had never occurred to anyone to include cable rights in any deal and, as Craig insisted to all in 1984, that meant they were on the table for TSN -- no matter who its owner was.

    "The league said 'we didn't sell Molson the cable rights. We only sold the broadcast rights.' But the CBC said the heck with everybody else, we bought all the broadcast rights, whether it's cable or over the air," says Craig, adding that the NHL, CBC and Molson couldn't decide what to do.

    "And there was an added complication. We were a Labatt-owned network," he adds.

    Craig called on a friend at Molson, Hal Moran, to pull the sides together and wrap their heads around a cable deal, the first of its kind here.

    "We sat down with Hal and explained that his position as an advertiser in hockey would be protected. He would always be an incumbent. Hal brought the NHL and us together in a hotel out near the airport, and we sat down and hammered out a deal where I think we did something like 12 or 16 games in that first year. That was a major, major breakthrough," says Craig.

    "You can't be a sports network in this country without hockey, or it's a long, hard winter."

    IT'S THAT KIND OF AUDACITY and determination that drew others to follow the founder to his fledgling network.

    "I came to TSN because of Gordon Craig," says John Wells, one of two remaining original on-air commentators who have been with TSN since the beginning (Off the Record host Michael Landsberg is the other). "He was such a brilliant broadcaster throughout his entire career. But it was still a gamble.

    "There were a lot of doubters out there. However, the people who put TSN on the air to begin with and the people who worked at it through the first few years never doubted its success for a moment," adds Wells.

    The versatile Wells who, thanks to his distinctive calls, has become something akin to the voice of the CFL, was different from his co-workers. He had years of broadcast experience. He had a family. "We took a huge risk coming to Toronto," he says. "At the time CBC made me an offer to stay in Edmonton, but I was convinced that Gordon was the guy I wanted to follow."

    TSN IS THE NUMBER ONE specialty channel in Canada. It's the most-watched. The rise in sports' import in North American society parallels the rise of TSN. As sports grew, so did TSN.

    Its ratings wins are too numerous to document here.

    But the service has been building to this level of success for 20 years and it has accumulated a lot of expertise, a ton of fan support and has counted on more than luck to get where it is today. Along the way, TSN took care to master the fundamentals of niche TV, sometimes with baby steps, always with a love-what-you're-doing pioneering spirit.

    Today, TSN is a key part of Bell Globemedia Inc., the parent company which also owns the Globe and Mail, CTV Network, sister specialty services Discovery Channel, The Comedy Network, OLN and more, along with a stake in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd.

    CONTENT, OF COURSE, is where it all starts. After Craig and Labatt had their hot-off-the-press license in hand, the first order of business was to figure out how to fulfill all the promises made to the Commission, to say nothing of giving viewers their money's worth.

    "Nobody really knew. It was naiveté on our part. You don't realize what an insatiable appetite for programming a 24-hour service has. I used to get teased when I went in front of the CRTC about darts and other similar programming that was being introduced into the Canadian marketplace on television for the first time," Craig reminisces.

    "Australian Rules Football was another one. These are things you didn't even know existed. We had other programming that wasn't quite as successful, such as cricket. We weren't able to really find an audience for that. But it was fun."

    As Phil King, TSN's current president, recalls, ESPN was a logical place to start the content search because it had a track record.

    "ESPN is one of the biggest sports brands in the world. It has been a terrific partner over the years. In the early years, ESPN was a godsend because we had -- and still have -- a supply agreement with them that allows us to pick and choose the best programming that they have Canadian rights for.

    "There is less reliance on ESPN programming currently, because we have so many other contracts and programs. But what ESPN is terrific for is sharing ideas. We wanted to get closer to the ESPN brand, and we did. For instance, we renamed SportsDesk as SportsCentre, with their look and music.

    "Moving forward, I think you'll see a closer alliance with ESPN."

    In the meantime (despite the NHL lockout), TSN will keep to its mandate, providing all the hockey, CFL football, NFL football, boxing, amateur sports and yes, even pro wrestling, that its viewers demand.

    And, despite the ties to the south and the dominance of the U.S. sports market, it's the iconic Canadian sports that are most important to TSN, says Rick Brace, a long-time TSN producer/director/senior executive who is now president of parent company CTV Inc.: "In terms of changing television, I think that TSN and MuchMusic, as the pioneers of niche genres, led the way. Niche genres were becoming common in the U.S., but they hadn't been launched in Canada yet.

    "There was lots of sports programming that went unaired, and there was a strong demand for it. The launch of TSN impacted and changed the sports world. It created a real opportunity. TSN provided viewers with a chance to see more of what they wanted to watch."

    TSN'S CONDITION OF LICENSE may not allow them to air sports movies or dramas, but talk shows are welcomed, er, unconditionally. The channel's hot-talk-from-the-git-go is Off The Record, with host Michael Landsberg and his edgy, funny, unpredictable, conversational romp with four guests each day.

    While they talk about sports and sports-related topics, the guests are often not sports figures and the conversations are often sizzling.

    "My favorite show was with Gene Simmons, Mark Tewksbury, Thea Andrews and Mark Hebscher," recalls Landsberg. "On that show I challenged Gene, saying it wasn't a big deal that he slept with 4,500 different people, as he wrote in his book, because in the sports world, Wilt Chamberlain says he slept with 20,000 women. Gene was flirting with Thea on the show and she said to him on air, 'I don't want to be your number 4,501', to which Tewksbury, who is openly gay said, 'I'd like to be 4,501!'

    "Single best moment that I've been a part of, for sure."

    THE BEST WAY TO EXPOSE TSN to the most fans was to force Canada's TV masters to let people see it more cheaply and unlock its pay-TV shackles in favour of a basic cable tier of some kind. Management began lobbying for a new home in 1987 when it became clear that their subscriber levels weren't growing as hoped. But by the time Craig and his team had persuaded the CRTC and joined MuchMusic at a less rarefied subscription price-point, it was mid-1989.

    Now, people were still watching the Huxtables, Sam "Mayday" Malone and the Connor family, but with TSN on a cheaper tier, sports fans could say buh-bye to Roseanne's clan and hello to more "back-to-back-jacks."

    It was a long time coming, but worth the wait. Although TSN had built itself to a respectable level of a million subscribers, when it leaped down from the pay tier, suddenly there were five times that amount.

    "One of the most important dates was September 1, 1989, when TSN went to basic cable," says Mike Day, executive producer of and former executive producer of SportsCentre. "It's funny, one night you're doing a news show that potentially has an audience of one million people, and the next day the potential is five million people."

    Although broadcasters all know that the number of subscribers is nowhere close to a channel's actual ratings, TSN made changes to capitalize on the significant opportunities presented by life on a new tier.

    "SportsDesk used to be a half-an-hour show twice daily. Then we added a 2 a.m. Eastern show (11 p.m. Pacific), then we went to an hour-long format, and then we began repeating the 2 a.m. show on a loop all morning until noon each day. It keeps growing and getting bigger and bigger," says Day, who joined TSN in 1988.

    "Today, news represents 40% of the TSN broadcast day. With SportsCentre, Off The Record, Molson That's Hockey and TSN The Reporters with Dave Hodge, just to name a few, the lineup is filled with news and information."

    1989 would be your classic TSN Turning Point, right there. But TSN didn't stand idle. In fact, it began marketing itself with dynamic ad campaigns (think: 'Real Life. Real Drama. Real TV.'), strong personalities and new programs to attract as many of the potential new viewers as possible. In the 15 years since it relocated to basic, TSN has become a Canadian brand name (see page 26).

    "The 'TSN Turning Point' has made its way into mainstream culture. Sports fans and non-sports fans alike often use the phrase 'that was the TSN Turning Point', when referring to things in everyday life. It's definitely had an impact, no question," says Mark Milliere, executive producer of News and NHL on TSN.

    TSN WAS (and is) A QUANTUM LEAP from the five-minute sportscasts sandwiched between local stations' news and weather, and giant steps ahead of Global's half-hour cast, Sportsline, which was the Canadian sports news industry standard at one time.

    "There's been a sports explosion since TSN launched 20 years ago," adds Milliere. "And we've been right at the epicentre of it all."

    TSN proudly boasts a strong lineup of live event programming -- everything from NHL games and international hockey (including the hyper-popular World Juniors), to the CFL, golf, auto racing, baseball, tennis, figure skating and of course, the Olympics.

    "Although the World Juniors is a fail-safe crowd-pleaser, few events rival the prestige of the Olympics," says Paul McLean, executive producer of events for TSN. "During the Olympics, you're doing 12-hour days, every day for two weeks straight. There's not a lot of time for sleep. But it's well worth it. Producing the Olympics and having a hand in the way Canadian viewers watch their Olympic hopefuls battle for gold is a rewarding and exhilarating experience."

    One of the most exciting new developments on TSN, and in television in general, is shooting and broadcasting in high definition format. In August 2024, TSN and sister station Discovery Channel became the first two Canadian specialty channels to broadcast their signals in HD.

    "Our first HD telecast was a Montreal/Hamilton CFL game at Ivor Wynne in August last year. It just so happens, that was the day after the big blackout, so the game -- and our first HD telecast -- was postponed until the following day. When the game was finally played, it was a magical, historical moment. We were the first network to televise a sports broadcast in HD in Canada. It was a very proud moment for everyone at TSN," recalls Rick Chisholm, TSN vice-president of programming and production.

    It's a testament to TSN's spirit of perseverance and pride that it has been adding both the latest technology, as well as additional live event programming, to enhance the on-air look and feel -- even though the arrival of competition in all-sports TV has cut into profit margins.

    TSN'S SUCCESS DREW others to the all-sports TV mix. The first competitor was sports news channel The Score (originally named Headline Sports) in 1997, and then a third, CTV Sportsnet (now Rogers Sportsnet) in 1998. TSN staffers -- many of whom have been there since the beginning or close to it -- say their channel rose unflinchingly to the challenge.

    Play-by-play man Wells says there's no doubt competition creates a new incentive to excel. "I think it's made us better. I think it's made us try harder. It's made for better product. It's created some interesting situations in bidding for rights.

    "When you look back at the beginning, people said there was no room for an all-sports network. And look at it today -- there's now three. There's no way that one network can do it all anymore," he adds.

    Industry observers expect The Score to be bought by one of the other sports channels. It's been eight years since the CRTC denied TSN's owners, NetStar Communications, a license for a second service, TSN Plus. Today, the acquisition of a second service might satisfy that wish for more sports shelf space. The outlook is a CFL football field away from TSN's early, lean years. The staff of 35 has become "200 and change". The roster of sports and events includes all the perennial favourites, plus such branded standouts as Wendy's Friday Night Football and Molson That's Hockey, and is so varied that viewers can always find something new.

    WITH THE MANY FANTASY sports aficionados, all the overflow information that sometimes can't get to air, and the surfing demands of the sports junkie, the Web has become a vital outlet for TSN.

    "We run the Web site as a mini version of the newsroom," says Day. "To say the site has been successful is a huge understatement. It has become a second channel -- almost".

    Not only does offer more news and extra video, but the viewership, especially on such days as March's NHL trade deadline day is, in Day's words, "Staggering. Forty-one million page views during 2024 trade deadline day. To put that in perspective, the entire month of March this year did 85 million. That's nearly half the page views for the month in just one day.

    "The rise in popularity has been remarkable. In 2024, we did just over six million page views. Last year, we did almost seven times that, which makes you wonder where it's going next," he added.

    WHILE MOST OF THOSE WORKING in TSN's first offices and studio on Leslie Street in Toronto were broadcasting pups fresh out of Ryerson or another broadcasting program, a few, such as Wells and Craig, had experience to call upon and impart.

    That experience taught Craig (he had been at CBC for 27 years) that if this thing was going to work, it had better be run professionally and businesslike, despite the flying footballs and basketballs in production.

    "We had people who for the most part hadn't been managers, outside of Gordon and a couple of others," remembers Brace, another former CBC Sports producer. "And we had the luxury of being the only kids on our block. We were not really under the microscope, other than by our corporate parents, Labatt. It gave me an understanding of private enterprise, of running a business. And because we were small and grew, we had a chance to learn the ins and outs and all the nuts and bolts of doing that.

    "It's where I learned to negotiate program rights. It's where I learned to oversee a staff as truly a manager," says Brace.

    TSN wasn't all nuts and bolts though. It was more like a team, with Craig as head coach and chief motivator.

    "What you also saw at TSN was an incredible sense of family. We were very close. Because it was small, you knew everybody. And there was really a sense that, under Gordon's leadership, that we were pulling on the same rope. We very much understood where we were going," continues Brace.

    "He was very insistent, and rightly so, on developing formal business plans and being religious to them. That gave us discipline. I still get e-mails from former TSN employees who have gone on to other places, and they always say that the discipline that TSN and of course Discovery and RDS have had in terms of business planning, in terms of how we operated, was second to none."

    The TSN executives also earned the respect of their carriers -- the cable companies. Programmers and cablecos are not always buddies, but Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications -- and Ted Rogers' right-hand man for over 30 years -- has only positive words for Craig, his staff, and his channel.

    "They've always been a real good network," says Lind. "I thought (Craig) was a first-class guy every step of the way... they've been truly supportive of the cable companies all the way along -- an amazingly good partner. Rick Brace, Gordon Craig, Jim Thompson... they've always been first-class."

    Looking back, were there stumbling blocks? Of course. But was Craig's vision bang on? You bet.

    "We read all the articles about people chuckling whether or not there was enough product for 24 hours," muses King, who started there as an accountant (and is a staunch boxing fan) in the '80s. "Boy were they wrong."

    Craig and partners, including ESPN, Montreal's Reitman family and Claridge Inc., purchased TSN from Labatt in 1996. They also acquired Discovery Channel and the French sports network, RDS, and called the company NetStar. The group sold the business in 2024 to CTV for a nice return and Craig is pleased with its direction since. No regrets.

    "It was time to sell. Consolidation was happening all over the place and we had a mandate to grow. You can't stand still in this business. You have to grow or you get gobbled up. We were well down the road with Global and the Aspers who were kicking our tires very seriously," says Craig, "and then along came Ivan Fecan, then head of CTV, and trumped them.

    "But I have to say, TSN wouldn't have happened without Labatt. They were absolutely fantastic owners and gave us all the autonomy in the world to build a network. And then we took it private with four incredibly supportive investors," says Craig.

    "On top of all that, I had some of the greatest staff members in the broadcasting world. I was very, very fortunate. Good partners, good owners, and good staff. It doesn't get any better than that."


    TSN originals John Wells (left) and Michael Landsberg celebrate 20 years.
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    TSN's Darren Dutchyshen anchors the network's early CFL coverage.
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    NHL on TSN play-by-play announcer Gord Miller circa 1991.
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    Left to right: CTV Inc. president Rick Brace, Bell Globemedia CEO and president Ivan Fecan, original TSN host John Wells, founding president Gordon Craig, and current TSN president Phil King at TSN's recent birthday celebrations.
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    Michael Landsberg went on the record as one of SportsDesk's first anchors in Sept., 1984.
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    TSN's man for all sports seasons, Rod Black
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    New SportsCentre host Holly Horton.
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    Make the final: TSN's Vic Rauter delivers his signature line on set in 1984.
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    A monster personality: NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire's honest and informative commentary has made him a fan favourite.
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    TSN on-air original Ken 'Chili' Chilibeck hung up his microphone in March, 2024, after spending nearly 20 years as SportsCentre's Edmonton reporter.
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