Canadian curling clubs rocked by big cable companies

Curling clubs across Canada are rallying together and pushing back against what they see as unfair treatment by the country’s two biggest cable television providers.

In March, Bell and Rogers announced that “public viewing establishments” with a license to sell alcohol, mainly bars and restaurants, would be charged more money to get sports channels like Bell’s TSN and Rogers’ Sportsnet in their establishments. The move could end up costing the average-size bar upwards of $ 4,000 more per year, according to an industry estimate.

Curling clubs also fall under this classification, and the fee hike could put many of the nearly 1,000 such places across the country, many of which are run by volunteers, in jeopardy, says Curling Canada.

“I would describe the first reactions as dismay and disbelief, followed by frustration at Bell and Rogers when the clubs realized that they were being targeted,” says Katherine Henderson, the CEO of Curling Canada.

Bar or not a bar?

In announcing the fee increase, the two media conglomerates argued it’s costing them more these days to generate the content for their sports channels that in turn attract big audiences to bars and restaurants. 

“For many years, these venues have paid rates for sports content that were not reflective of the benefits they’ve enjoyed, due to the high volume of patrons that gather to watch sports and the revenue it generates for these establishments,” says Jordan Kerbel, the director of communications for Sportsnet.

While many curling clubs generate revenue from alcohol sales, Curling Canada argues the biggest difference between sports bars and curling clubs is the motivation for those sales. Sports bars exist as for-profit establishments, while most curling clubs use the money they earn from selling beer, other drinks and food to subsidize their leagues and programs and help keep the lights on. If they can’t show sports on the TVs in their licensed areas, their members might go elsewhere when they get off the ice, costing clubs a potential revenue stream.

Henderson points to the grassroots nature of curling clubs, and how people who run them work hard to make sure the sport remains accessible to everyone in their cities and towns.

“A club that has to contend with an extra three or five thousand dollars a year might have to cancel a juniors program or open their doors a little later, leaving out a morning seniors league,” she says.

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Bell and Rogers say it’s costing them more than ever to generate content for their sports channels, and that the events they broadcast bring bigger crowds to bars and restaurants. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Taking it online

An online campaign, featuring the website NotASportsBar.ca, is now being coordinated by Curling Canada on behalf of its member clubs to make more people aware of how they believe the cable fee increase could negatively affect them.

The campaign is gaining momentum with clubs across Canada, according to Henderson.

“Our members do a lot of good work locally, but they realized in order to be heard on a national level they needed to work with us directly to make sure the voices of the million and a half curlers and coaches and curling volunteers are heard,” she says.

Henderson says Canada’s Minister of Sport, Carla Qualtrough, and Minister of Heritage, Melanie Joy, are aware of the campaign and the potential harm the cable fee increase could do to curling clubs.

“This is one choice that Rogers and Bell don’t have to force [curling clubs] to make,” Henderson says.

Solutions?

Bell controls the broadcast rights for Curling Canada events like the Tournament of Hearts and the Brier, while Rogers has the rights to Grand Slam of Curling tournaments. Henderson says both companies are aware of Curling Canada’s concerns and they’ve both indicated they would like to “better understand the issue.”

“Both of those organizations produce a lot of curling and they realize that there are a lot of fans out there that are upset and wondering why they are being treated like a for-profit sports bar,” she says.

Kerbel says Rogers has indicated to Curling Canada that it is open to discussing potential solutions. At this point, the invitation has gone unanswered.

“Curling Canada has expressed a legitimate concern and we’ve reached out to them to discuss opportunities for their members,” he says.

“Sportsnet deeply appreciates the contributions curling clubs play in promoting the sport across the country, and we value our relationship with the curling community.”

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