TSN president weighs in on the network, competition and sports media landscape

‘Competition is fierce,’ Stewart Johnston says

TSN president weighs in on the network, competition and sports media landscape

Ask TSN president Stewart Johnston about his start at the network and he’ll fire off specifics like it was yesterday.

“It was Feb. 10, 1997. I wore a full suit because I didn’t know what to do. It was a little embarrassing because I was so over-dressed relative to everybody who worked there,” he said with a laugh. “As the junior intern coming in, I wanted to make a good impression.

“I stopped (wearing the suit) after one day. I was eyes wide open, certainly a little intimidated but ecstatic at the same time.”

A suit is a mainstay now as Johnston approaches a full decade in his current position and over 22 years with the company. The Ottawa native also oversees Bell Media’s national advertising sales and in-house creative agency.

A self-described ‘sports junkie’ as a youngster, Johnston followed his favourite sports by watching local sportscasts and reading magazines and newspapers.

“In 1984, TSN launches and it was a life-changer for me,” he said. “My parents weren’t too thrilled with how much time I was spending on the couch.”

He focused on business studies after high school and completed an honours degree at Queen’s University before trying his luck at TSN.

“I came to TSN and banged on the human resources door and said, ‘I will do anything, please let me in.’” Johnston said. “They gave me really a glorified intern job, maybe one of the most junior in the company. That was 1997 and it was magical to me. I loved every second of it.”

He handled junior network scheduling in those early days, essentially taking content and mapping it out into a 24-hour schedule.

“I was just happy to be there and almost a little nervous, (thinking) that this can’t last,” he said. “It’s too good to be true. It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of really lucky breaks. It’s been a good run since then.”

Johnston, who worked his way up via the programming side, now guides the network’s television, radio and digital offerings from the CTV/TSN north campus headquarters.

His office is loaded with television screens and sports memorabilia. His booming pipes would make him a natural on radio if he ever decided to get on the mic.

“If there’s one thing that I want to make sure I’m focused on, it’s managing the TSN brand,” he said.

The network’s plums include the CFL, NFL, Grand Slam tennis, Hockey Canada events, Season of Champions curling, golf majors and soccer’s World Cup. There are some NBA and MLB offerings as well along with auto racing, UFC, MLS, NCAA March Madness and other sports.

One of the biggest challenges of Johnston’s tenure was when rival Sportsnet landed a 12-year, $5.23-billion media rights agreement with the NHL in 2013.

Hockey, of course, is king in Canada and while TSN still has some regional NHL broadcast rights, the deal was seismic in nature.

“What we decided to do was build our entire programming schedule, our marketing messaging, our entire strategy around games of consequence,” Johnston said. “Breadth and depth of content that delivers iconic moments.”

TSN did score monster ratings with a couple generational moments this year with the Toronto Raptors’ Game 6 victory over Golden State to win the NBA Finals (Sportsnet and TSN split the Raptors’ schedule with their parent companies co-majority owners of the team). That was followed a few months later by Bianca Andreescu’s stunning run to a U.S. Open title and final victory over Serena Williams.

While both TSN and Sportsnet have had highs and lows on the ratings front, recent talk about their long-running rivalry always seems to shift back to the NHL deal.

Rogers executives have professed their love for the agreement, which has come at a time when Canadian teams have struggled to go deep in the playoffs. Critics have called the deal an albatross that has led to sweeping job cuts.

Looking back at that time, Johnston said communication was key at TSN. Staff members were told of the network’s new strategy and future plans. On-air talent was re-signed and advised that hockey would be an “absolute mainstay” of the schedule going forward.

“After we got word of the change in the NHL rights, we launched three new feeds to make five TSN feeds,” Johnston said during a sitdown interview. “That was within nine months. That all happened very quickly with an incredible amount of effort and creativity from the team here at TSN.

“What that told the world is we weren’t shrinking, we were expanding and we were going to be aggressive. That was the first step in that new strategy.”

Both networks feel they’re on top and frame their messaging accordingly. Sportsnet calls itself Canada’s No. 1 sports media brand while TSN calls itself Canada’s sports leader. News releases from both sides pump the tires on ratings, video starts on digital platforms and engagement on official social media accounts.

“I’d say that what hasn’t changed is how competitive the team at TSN is from a frame of mind,” Johnston said. “We want to win. No matter who’s in front of us, we want to make sure that we come out on top and that we stay No. 1 and that we’re considered as the leading voice in sports in this country.”

Other competitors have joined the fray in recent years. Twitter and YouTube have dabbled in sports broadcasting and DAZN Canada is in the domestic mix now too.

“Competition is fierce,” Johnston said. ”It was fierce 10 years ago and it’s fierce again today. We have different players that we deal with but we feel very confident in our roster of sports.

“We have a lot of long-term contracts with key properties that make us feel very good about the future of TSN.”

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested at Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear mask, leave

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

The former McDonald’s in downtown Kelowna is finally coming down. (Twila Amato - Black Press Media)
VIDEO: McDonald’s demolition begins

The former McDonald’s restaurant finally comes down after 13 years of vacancy

News Bulletin file photo
West Kelowna Daybreak Rotary Club to host Rudolph Drive-Thru Breakfast

The event aims to raise funds for the Salvation Army

Bean Scene North at 1399 Ellis Street in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Anti-maskers yell at Kelowna café-owner who was holding her baby

Three maskless men entered Bean Scene North on Saturday afternoon looking for an argument, owner says

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

7-year-old Mackenzie Hodge from Penticton sent a hand-written letter to premiere John Horgan asking if she’d be able to see her elf, Ralph under the new coronavirus restrictions. (John Horgan / Twitter)
Elf on the shelf an acceptable house guest B.C. premier tells Okanagan girl

A 7-year-old from Penticton penned a letter asking if she’d be allowed to see her elf this year

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

RCMP pictured at a motor vehicle incident during snowy conditions. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
B&E, stolen car in Vernon lands Whitehorse man in cuffs

Suspect takes off on foot in attempts to evade arrest

Penticton Search and Rescue along with the Penticton Fire Department located and airlifted an injured 21-year-old female hiker Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. (Mike Biden photo)
Penticton search and rescue airlift injured hiker off mountain

There has been an unprecedented amount of calls for search and rescue this year

Salmon Arm RCMP nabbed two Calgary suspects in an allegedly stolen vehicle on Highway 1 on Nov. 22, 2020. (File photo)
Salmon Arm RCMP use spike belts on Highway 1 to nab Calgary suspects

Arrests occur after Revelstoke RCMP clock allegedly stolen vehicle going faster than 160 km/h

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

RCMP stayed with the vehicle until it was towed to a secure lot. (Black Press file photo)
Armoured truck carrying millions of dollars crashes near Princeton

The incident occurred after the truck hit an elk on the road

Most Read