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Will TVA Sports remain Montreal Impact's official broadcaster?

The Montreal Impact will start their fifth season in a few weeks and it also marks the last year of their regional TV contract with TVA Sports (which expires in December). Will the Impact continue with TVA Sports or award the regional broadcast rights to their competitor, RDS ?

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

During the next few months, TVA Sports will negotiate a new deal in the hopes of retaining the rights to be the team's official broadcaster, while RDS will also submit a bid so they can add the regional rights to the national rights they already have - and be the sole network that will show every single Impact game.

TVA Sports was awarded the regional rights to become the official broadcaster of the Montreal Impact on July 14, 2011. At that time it seemed like a smart move by the Impact. TVA Sports just launched their new channel and the Montreal Impact would be their main draw in Quebec, seeing as RDS had the coverage of the Habs and Alouettes already. TVA Sports also had the rights to broadcast some Ottawa Senators and Toronto Blue Jays games, along with other sports.

Joey Saputo was thinking beyond the broadcasting of the games, and looked at the diverse opportunities offered by Quebecor Media and its subsidiaries (such as TVA Sports and Videotron) to increase the visibility of the Impact in Quebec - via television, online, magazines, newspapers, advertising, etc.

At the press conference to announce the partnership there was great enthusiasm by the Quebecor Media representatives present (Pierre-Karl Peladeau, Pierre Dion and Robert Dépatie) who vowed to "offer rich, varied coverage that gives viewers full information about the Impact and the game of soccer through interviews with players, behind-the-scenes reports, and interviews with the team's owners and with experts."

On the technology side, Videotron would "provide a more hi-tech experience at Saputo Stadium and will apply its creativity by expanding the contacts between the club and the public while giving fans in the stands the best possible experience during Impact games and helping the team reach its supporters across Québec by virtual means."

Five years later, doubts remain as to whether or not Quebecor Media fulfilled its promise and mandate towards the Montreal Impact. It was almost a year ago that Joey Saputo lamented about the lack of buzz regarding his team. Although most of the blame can be attributed to the team's poor performance, questions about Quebecor Media's effectiveness, or lack thereof, are legitimate. What has TVA Sports done to help grow their viewers while ensuring the Montreal Impact become much more relevant to the average sports fan in Quebec?

Impact TVA

During the past few years, TVA Sports has made a considerable effort to provide adequate coverage for the Impact, while making some mistakes along the way. It was only normal given they were a new network that just launched and can be forgiven. Clearly, there was an insufficient amount of true "soccer experts" who were employed by the TV network, both at the management level and the staff.

Of all the mistakes we can criticize, there is one which fans will never forgive, the playoff run in 2013 when TVA Sports cancelled the broadcast of two Impact games in order to show the Ottawa Senators instead because of a conflict. That was a huge slap in the face towards the Impact. The promise to broadcast the games and increase the club's visibility was thrown out the window, it was more important to get immediate results (and money) with viewership NOW. This situation infuriated the fans and questioned TVA Sports' commitment and loyalty towards the Impact.

There is much to be desired in terms of creativity, both with pre and post match coverage. More could have been done to promote the Impact and build a story before matchday to entice the fans and inform them. A dedicated soccer show, with varied guests and analysts would have been a great way to satisfy the hardcore Impact fans (who will always want more) while serving as a marketing and educational tool for the casual fans to improve both their knowledge of the game and get to know the Montreal Impact players and staff better. Some special behind-the-scenes access, creative programming and extended game highlights and analysis would do wonders.

Matchday coverage has been ok, but there is room for improvement. Road game broadcasts, which are done in studio, are painful to watch. It doesn't make sense that smaller cities such as Salt Lake and Portland have their play-by-play crew travel on the road with the team, while a big city like Montreal has them remain at home in studio. The viewers can see a big difference in the quality and excitement level of the play-by-play crew when they are live on site versus being in a studio looking at a monitor.

Many fans have wondered how it was possible that TSN690 radio made a commitment to send their play-by-play crew on every road match, yet the TV network didn't do the same.

What does the future hold? Now that Rogers and TVA Sports have the rights to broadcast the NHL games for the next 11 years, and that Quebec City may one day get an NHL team, it is easy to draw conclusions and say TVA Sports has shifted priorities to hockey and will leave the Impact in its shadow. I tried to get a comment from TVA Sports but they declined.

Will RDS be aggressive and seize the opportunity that presents itself? That was a question that I was thinking about for quite some time, and who better to answer it than Domenic Vannelli, VP Production at RDS? Domenic is one of the key members of the team working with the President of RDS who will be making a proposal to the Montreal Impact.

I want to thank Domenic for his time and in answering my questions.

The regional rights for broadcasting the Montreal Impact games will expire in December. Now that Rogers/TVA Sports has the NHL rights and RDS only will still broadcast 22 60 Habs games, is this an opportunity to fill a void?

Just like any other property, we would have an interest in pursuing this opportunity. We are already partners with TSN (who hold the national TV rights for MLS games) and getting the regional rights would fit in perfectly. Five years ago we also submitted a bid to the Montreal Impact, but we lost to a competitor.

Although we lost the hockey broadcasts (last year), we filled the void with other shows and our own in-house programming with our own content. Our subscriber base is stable, we’re a good network we provide lots of programming to our subscribers.

In regards to a proposal it would have to make economic sense. You have to consider the rights fees and make a solid business case knowing full well that the potential ad revenue will never cover the rights fees in this market, for any sport.

We evaluate the ratings, market share, breakdown of viewers (age, male/female, etc..) while projecting things in the future. This is never easy, especially since the industry will change in the future as the younger generation will access content more on their mobile phones and/or computer than traditional TV.

Speaking of the future, we often hear about how soccer is growing in Quebec as more and more kids are playing the sport. There are some who say soccer will overtake hockey in the future, what are your thoughts on this?

The hardcore soccer fans believe that one day the Impact will surpass the Habs in terms of interest, that is a crazy statement. Realistically, eventhough the Montreal Impact as an entity exists for over 20 years, in MLS it is still in its infancy stage. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

We have seen how the casual fan interest fluctuates from a high in the Concacaf Champions League, to a slow start to the season, to the Drogba effect and the playoffs. Joey Saputo has done great things for soccer in Quebec with major investments in youth, infrastructure and a passion and desire that is second to none.

Unfortunately that does not provide immediate results, but more for the long term. In the short term, the Montreal Impact have no choice but to sign marquee players like Drogba to get the casual fans interested. They also need to win and make the playoffs to build and grow a loyal fan base. Look at what Toronto FC has done investing millions of dollars on Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore. An argument can be made Toronto FC had to spend big to ensure it draws fans and media interest as they compete with other sports.

One of the big complaints from fans in matchday coverage is the play-by-play being done in studio instead of live on site. If RDS would win the broadcast rights, would you commit to sending the play-by-play crew to travel on the road with the team?

While I agree the matchday coverage done live on site provides a better quality product, economics come into play and at this stage I can’t commit to this one way or another. It’s a catch-22. There are also other ways to invest time and resources to better showcase the team and its players beyond matchday with some unique programming.

The Montreal Impact will start their fifth season, yet they still need a broadcast partner who sees them as an opportunity and help them grow for their mutual benefit. The Impact should not be viewed as a property who’s sole purpose is to fill a hole in the broadcaster’s schedule. Negotiations will take place in the next few months.

I tried to get a timeline of when a decision will be made from Patrick Vallee, Montreal Impact Director of Communications, but was denied. No matter who will win the bid, here are some of my recommendations to Joey Saputo and the Montreal Impact management when negotiating with the TV networks:

  1. Sign a three year deal. If things go well, very easy to continue the relationship, if not, it gives you the chance to make changes in a shorter time span.

  2. Insert a clause in the contract that the TV network will commit to providing several press conferences live throughout the season, especially when it comes to presenting the signing/acquisition of new players

  3. Insist on having a formal pre and post game show, instead of a quick preview and short wrap-up. 

  4. Make it mandatory to have a weekly soccer dedicated show, a la antichambre for example, which involves players, staff, the Quebec soccer association and its clubs and affiliates. While we’re at it, why not be bold and even include the fans from time to time? 

  5. Make sure road games are broadcast live on site and not in a studio. Do like some other MLS teams who cover some of the travel costs for the play-by-play team. 

  6. Work with the broadcast partner to develop a content development strategy which will enhance its TV coverage, and set goals in terms of reaching viewership targets