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

‘Competition is fierce,’ Stewart Johnston says

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

Dogs are matched with the person, not the person matched to the dog – Prince Rupert SPCA

Prince Rupert SPCA does their due diligence in adopting dogs to suitable human companions

Photo Gallery: Memorial totem pole raising in Prince Rupert

The memorial pole stands in memory of Prince Rupert carvers mother on Second Ave. West

Province, feds, Wet’suwet’en announce progress in MOU talks

External community engagement process launched to help implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title

Memorial totem pole raised in Prince Rupert

The memorial pole was a two year project led by local carver Lyle Campbell

Heart of our city – Fighting for the road to recovery

World champion kick-boxer wins at Trinity House recovery program

578 British Columbians currently infected with COVID-19

Seventy-eight new cases confirmed in past 24 hours

Conservation seizes fawn illegally kept captive in Vancouver Island home

A Comox Valley resident charged and fined under the Wildlife Act

Pandemic could be driving more parents to get on board with flu shot: study

University of B.C. study gauges willingness for parents to vaccinate children for influenza

Watchdog clears Okanagan RCMP in death of man after arrest over alleged stolen pizzas

The man died in hospital after having difficulty breathing and broken ribs

Have you seen Berleen? B.C. pig destined for sanctuary goes missing

Berleen was less than two weeks from travelling to Manitoba when she vanished

Health Canada says several kids hospitalized after eating edible pot products

People warned not to store cannabis products where children can find them

‘It’s not just about me’: McKenna cites need to protect politicians from threats

Police investigation was launched after someone yelled obscenities at a member of McKenna’s staff

Michigan plans dedicated road lanes for autonomous vehicles

First study of its kind in the U.S. to figure out whether existing lanes or shoulders could be used

Most Read