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Whitecaps' 2011 Television Schedule Almost Ironed Out

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The Vancouver Whitecaps don't always have the same idea I do of a "media splash". I've been encouraging them to get out into the community, get the names of both the team and the players known, and make an impact that way. Instead, the Whitecaps have opted to make their mark on the media by talking about the media. On the heel of TSN being named Major League Soccer's national Canadian broadcaster and the TEAM 1410 winning Vancouver's radio rights, the Whitecaps finished off their old media hat trick by announcing that Rogers Sportsnet has won a three-year contract to be local broadcaster of the Vancouver Whitecaps.

"Local" is, of course, a relative term. Most of Rogers' Whitecaps games will be broadcast on Sportsnet Pacific in high definition, a channel aimed at British Columbia. But sports fans across the country can purchase all four Sportsnet channels on digital television, and the real die-hards will have Sportsnet Pacific, West, Ontario, and East on their dials: though some sporting events have been blacked out by Sportsnet outside the "local" viewing area, not all of them are. Eleven games on Sportsnet Pacific may be available across the country. Nine more will be on Rogers' Sportsnet One digital channel; a national channel, but one that Sportsnet has restricted regionally in the past for NHL hockey games. And one will be produced by Sportsnet but aired on the Rogers-owned CityTV Vancouver. That, at least, will be a truly local game.

This means that every Whitecaps game for their inaugural season will be broadcast across British Columbia at least. Most of them will be on basic cable, which compares favourably to Toronto FC's oft-criticized relationship with digital station GolTV. But it also means that the Whitecaps will split their games between five different television stations in their inaugural season. This is assuming that Rogers Sportsnet retains the television rights to the Voyageurs Cup: these rights are sold separately by the Canadian Soccer Association and have not yet been finalized for 2011. Sportsnet has broadcast the Cup for each of the last three seasons, but if the rights go to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or the Score then that's one more station for Vancouver Whitecaps fans to remember.

Grateful though I am that twenty-one Whitecaps games will be available locally on basic cable, I'm aggravated at the confusing distribution. Unfortunately, that's just a reflection of the low esteem the national media hold the Whitecaps in. Both TSN and Sportsnet are based in Toronto, Ontario, and both can be accused of short-sighted views: Sportsnet is at least well-intentioned but TSN is popularly nicknamed the "Toronto Sports Network" for their quite overt bias towards all things Ontario. That probably explains why, when TSN got the national MLS rights, they announced that every one of their Toronto FC games would be shown on their main network but four of their Whitecaps games would be relegated to their minor digital channel TSN-2.

By stashing nine games on Sportsnet One, meanwhile, Rogers is presumably trying to avoid conflicts with some of their other properties. Nobody would really begrudge Sportsnet showing a Vancouver Canucks game ahead of the Whitecaps, but if the Whitecaps wind up being bumped to the ass-end of the digital stations for the sake of the Toronto Blue Jays or the Seattle Mariners then people are going to be, rightly, pissed off.

(This is the part where I state the obvious. I am glad every Whitecaps game is on television with a reputable national broadcaster. We obviously don't know how TSN's soccer coverage is going to look yet, but Sportsnet at least did a professional job with the Voyageurs Cup. I live in a world where major companies are lining up to pay for the right to broadcast every single game of a Vancouver-based soccer team. Do you realize how unbelievable that is? Now back to the cynicism.)

The good news is that I'm optimistic about the numbers the Whitecaps will draw, and with a three-year contract Sportsnet has every motivation to ensure they broadcast the best, most popular product possible. When Sportsnet has shown Canadian national team games, the result has been spotty, but that was a property they show a couple of times every season and gets mediocre-at-best viewership. The Whitecaps are in another league, quite literally, and will require a first-class full-time crew. A crew that I'm confident Sportsnet can provide.

This wasn't the best deal possible for the Whitecaps. But it's a multi-year attachment to a major media organization with wide reach and a history of providing first-class regional sports coverage. They have every reason to make their broadcasts a success, not least being to stick it to TSN (who outbid them for the national rights). I was apprehensive about the Toronto Sports Network controlling the game nationally, but Sportsnet... them I can live with.