While Don Cherry’s firing might have been couched in moral terms, it was likely more of a cold, hard business decision based on dollars and cents.
Simply put, say marketing experts, the long-time Coach’s Corner commentator’s angry on-air shtick was no longer worth the risk for sponsors such as Labatt, which shells out millions of dollars a year to have Budweiser front and centre on the broadcasts. And with Sportsnet already on a cost-cutting binge partly because of the price of its $5.2 billion broadcast contract with the NHL, the network could ill afford to upset a major sponsor.
“There comes a point when it pisses off substantial numbers of viewers. And it also pisses off the sponsors. They worry that consumers may associate them with whatever’s been said,” said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
Younger consumers, particularly the ones beer companies are increasingly struggling to hold onto, are more likely to make purchasing decisions based on what they see as a brand’s values, Middleton said.
“Especially for the beer companies, they’re concerned with the younger group. This generation is far more sensitive to brand associations and values,” said Middleton.
Cherry’s Saturday night rant about “you people” not wearing poppies to honour Canadian veterans was likely the “last straw” for both Sportsnet and title sponsor Labatt, said David Kincaid, CEO of Level5 brand marketing. Kincaid, a former senior marketing executive with Labatt who negotiated the brewery’s first sponsorship deal with “Hockey Night in Canada” in the mid-90s when it was still on CBC, said the brewery likely wouldn’t have had the authority to fire Cherry. But, Kincaid said, they may have put pressure on the broadcaster for disciplinary action.
“The sponsor really wouldn’t be able to directly say ‘get rid of him,’” suggested Kincaid. “They’d say ‘we don’t like this and we’d like you to do something about it,’ and the ‘something’ would be up to Sportsnet.’”
In a statement on Cherry’s firing, Labatt stressed that it had made its feelings about Cherry’s “inappropriate and divisive” words known to Sportsnet after the Coach’s Corner segment.
“The comments made Saturday on Coach’s Corner were clearly inappropriate and divisive, and in no way reflect Budweiser’s views. As a sponsor of the broadcast, we immediately expressed our concerns and respect the decision which was made by Sportsnet,” Todd Allen, vice-president of marketing for Labatt Breweries of Canada told the Star in an email Monday.
Sportsnet spokesperson Andrew Garas said it was the network’s decision to part ways with Cherry, but acknowledged that Labatt was kept informed of its discussions with Cherry, who first started on Coach’s Corner on CBC in 1981.
“A decision of this magnitude requires careful thought and consideration and following discussions with Don, we decided it was time for him to step down. We are constantly communicating with our partners and they support our decision,” said Garas Tuesday.
Garas wouldn’t say how much — if any — severance Cherry was paid by Sportsnet, but said the controversial commentator was on a year-to-year contract. A New York Times story in 2017 estimated Cherry was earning roughly $1 million (U.S.) per season for Coach’s Corner.
Given Cherry’s long track record of on-air controversy, Sportsnet knew exactly what it was getting when it decided to keep Cherry on air after beating out CBC to sign a mammoth, 12-year contract for NHL broadcasting rights in 2013, suggested Kincaid. In fact, his outrageousness was likely part of the reason he was kept on.
“They needed audience and eyeballs, and they recognized that Don was still a draw. There was a pragmatic business reason to leave Don in place. They knew what they were buying. Don’s brand has been consistent over the years,” Kincaid said.
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But what once was a draw became a liability, Kincaid said.
“Society is different than it was a year ago, let alone five or 10. That evolution, and social media and the ability to offer your opinion, has changed the playing field,” said Kincaid. “His brand has fallen out of relevance.”