TORONTO (June 21) — Sometime early in 2010, I gathered with colleagues and fellow employees in the Velma Rogers Theatre within the building, at 1 Mount Pleasant Rd., that houses the Rogers Communications empire. For 22 years, I had been a reporter and broadcaster at Canada’s first all–sports radio station (today, Sportsnet–590). The parent company had recently hired veteran TV executive Scott Moore (formerly of Hockey Night In Canada) as president of its enormous media wing. And, Moore wanted to impart a message.
“I came here for one reason — to make Sportsnet the number–one network across Canada,” he said from the theatre stage. “We’ve been number two [to TSN] long enough. That day, I promise, will soon end.”
What seemed like rhetoric at the time became reality less than four years later… at an incalculable cost, one that continues to menace employees of Rogers Media. Not surprisingly, the prime movers behind the preposterous, 12–year, $5.2 billion deal that secured (on Nov. 26, 2013) Canadian TV rights for the National Hockey League — Nadir Mohamed, Keith Pelley and Moore — have long–since fled the company. The fourth party to the agreement, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, continues to laugh all the way to the bank. In its wake, the hockey pact has inevitably fathered blood–letting amid those beneath the top tier of management. TV and radio careers have been destroyed, with more to follow in the coming days. The latest casualty is the biggest casualty: Bob McCown, the most–widely recognized sports–media personality not named Don Cherry or Ron MacLean across the land. McCown and Rogers had an abrupt falling out this week and the host of Prime Time Sports signed off, this evening, after a remarkable run of nearly 30 years.
BOB McCOWN ON THE FIELD AT ROGERS CENTRE (SEP. 8, 2017) FOR THE 25th ANNIVERSARY OF SPORTSNET–590 BECOMING CANADA’S FIRST ALL–SPORTS RADIO STATION. GETTY IMAGES
“Everything that goes on around here, with respect to a financial issue, stems from that hockey contract,” said a current employee of Rogers who, for obvious reasons, requested anonymity. “It was nice for awhile to know that Sportsnet gained top status ahead of TSN… and it wouldn’t have happened without the NHL. But, the bloom fell off that rose long ago. For months, now, employees have been paranoid about their jobs. I’m not sure what happened with [McCown]. All I do know is the company is bleeding from the hockey contract.
“So, I’ll assume it was only a matter of time for our highest–paid worker.”
Though McCown’s ratings are on a down–slope, his demise at Rogers is still rather shocking. No individual has made more money for the company through the years; neither has any person been so–intrinsically connected to Sportsnet nor the radio station once known as The FAN–590. There’s no way Rogers could continue Prime Time Sports without McCown, just as Hockey Night will eventually cease Coach’s Corner in the absence of Cherry. Whichever afternoon–drive format the radio station settles on for the important Fall ratings period in September — and whomever leads that effort on the air — McCown cannot be duplicated. Nor, likely, can the profit–margin earned by Rogers (and Telemedia prior to 2002) for having McCown, now 67, in the anchor’s chair while the masses were driving home from work each day. For many years, it was the perfect marriage between listener and host. And, the impact of McCown’s absence should be fascinating.
“I feel badly for Bob… he gave me my first big opportunity in radio and I’ll always cherish that,” said Bill Watters, the co–host of Prime Time Sports when it launched — Oct. 2, 1989 — on local radio. “I had sold my [hockey] agency and was just getting into media at the time. I couldn’t have landed a better spot than sitting across from Bob during those early years of Prime Time. Bob and I had a good relationship when we worked together and during my 12 years with the Maple Leafs (1991–2003 as assistant general manager). I’ve never seen a person do his job so naturally. He wasn’t a big prep–guy or the hardest worker I’ve been around. But, boy, could he pull it off once the lights went up. Bob was a media superstar in every sense of the word.”
BILL WATTERS, PICTURED HERE AS ASSISTANT GM OF THE LEAFS, WAS THE ORIGINAL CO–HOST OF PRIME TIME SPORTS. HE JOINED THE HOCKEY CLUB IN OCTOBER 1991. BRUCE BENNETT GETTY IMAGES
Prime Time Sports — initially, a 50–minute show (6:10–7 p.m.) that aired locally on CJCL AM–1430 — was a trial–balloon for the all–sports format. That it generated a large and loyal audience led to Telemedia Communications launching (on Sep. 4, 1992) the first sports–radio station in Canada… initially known as The FAN–1430. When Telemedia acquired the more–powerful AM–590 signal from, coincidentally, Rogers, the station became (on Feb. 6, 1995) The FAN–590. Personally, I have fond memories of the early Prime Time era, as I produced the show for the first three years. Though McCown and I occasionally butted heads (we had the same temperament), I marveled at the way he commanded virtually every subject. As Watters pointed out, Bob didn’t kill himself during the day. Often, he’d wander into the studio 20 seconds before air–time; glance at the line–up I had put together; ask a question or two… and then interview a guest as if he’d been studying the topic for hours. I would sit astonished, my mouth agape, on the other side of the glass.
“That was his genius,” said Watters, who will turn 76 next week. “I used to shake my head in amazement as well. It’s the reason Bob generated such enormous ratings and began to pull in the big bucks (speculated to be in excess of $1 million/year toward the end). It’s also the reason I’m not overly surprised at the decision by Rogers to part company with him. Ever since the company signed that ridiculous hockey contract, Bob’s head has been on a platter. Ultimately, the money pored into the NHL deal would affect the person making the largest media salary. If anything, I’m surprised it took this long. But, remember: Bob made that money for a reason. Prime Time Sports generated millions of dollars in [advertising] revenue for Rogers. Not for a minute should that he understated or overlooked by anyone when talking about his departure.”
I HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF PRODUCING PRIME TIME SPORTS, WITH BOB McCOWN AND BILL WATTERS, WHEN IT LAUNCHED FROM 6:10 TO 7 P.M. ON LOCAL RADIO (CJCL AM–1430) IN OCTOBER 1989.
McCown may also have been tiring of his association with Rogers. He and his wife, Christina, were at Benjamin’s for a funeral service a few months ago (for those unaware, I have worked as a director’s assistant at Canada’s top–rated Jewish funeral chapel since November 2017). I had the position of “Front” that day, which meant I greeted guests as they drove up to the main entrance. Bob stepped outside a few minutes before the service and we chatted. “Are you still enjoying it?” I wondered about hosting Prime Time.
“It’s a job,” he replied, flatly, without a hint of enthusiasm.
That brief exchange instantly came to mind when I learned out his departure on Thursday.