Sportsnet Now and the NHL are Actively Making it Worse to Watch Hockey Online

Last night I attempted to watch the Carolina Hurricanes play the Anaheim Ducks using the Sportsnet Now online service. A few minutes into the game, I realized that the series of commercials being displayed on the screen during a break in the action had gone on much longer than was normal for NHL hockey.

When game play returned, it dumped me into 30 seconds into a power play in progress, one whose initial penalty I hadn’t even seen because I’d been enduring yet another ad for sports betting. Then, a few minutes later, it happened again: a five minute commercial break so long that, when Sportsnet Now returned to the broadcast-in-progress, I had actually missed a goal. All of this occurred within the first half of the first period of game, and I was so irritated that, as the problem continued, I ended up turning it off in disgust at the first intermission.

I appreciate Sportsnet’s dedication to trying to sell to me with commercials while I watch a service that I’m already shelling out a fee for, but I would appreciate it even more if I could actually watch the hockey game that I am paying to watch, please. Alas, this seems to be too much to ask from an online service, and a league, that manifestly cares very little about the viewing experience of hockey fans and subscribers.

For many years, the NHL operated its own hockey streaming service

It was first sold as Center Ice, and migrated to the NHL Live, GameCenter, and NHL.tv brandings over time. In the final few years of its existence in Canada it was operated by Rogers Communications, before the NHL divested itself entirely of the service by handing the reigns to ESPN+ in 2021 in the U.S. and Sportsnet north of the border the following year.

To say the migration from the NHL Live experience to Sportsnet Now has been a disaster would be an understatement. As a subscriber to the league’s online service for close to a decade, the difference in quality, features, and reliability between the two is shocking. Not only that, but the price, which has remained the same for some subscribers and increased for others, now nets you fewer features than it did before in a rare example of a streaming service actively making the product worse over time.

It’s hard to nail down the worst aspects of the Sportsnet Now NHL streaming service

Maybe it’s going from being able to choose whether I wanted to watched the home or away broadcast team, to being forced to eyeball whatever arbitrary broadcast feed Sportsnet has selected for the evening (which often involves enduring its homegrown commentators and announcers)?

Or maybe it’s the time I was watching a nail-biting shootout on the East Coast when the feed suddenly switched to Kevin Bieksa’s pre-game number retirement ceremony in Vancouver, before swapping back to the shoot-out, still in progress, 5 rounds later?

Or could it be all those nights I’ve sat there, waiting for the broadcast to begin, only to have it start 15 to 20 minutes late with half the first period already played out?

Paying more for less, in a word, sucks

Despite considerable unrest from subscribers Sportsnet Now has done absolutely nothing to improve its offerings a quarter of the way through the season. Customer service from Sportsnet is practically non-existent: its social media presence is a ghost town, and when I tried to use the company’s support email I received a response telling me that ‘now@sportsnet.ca’ is not an ‘official customer service channel,’ and it’s not ‘monitored on a daily basis.’

It certainly doesn’t help, either, that the NHL has done its best to make the product on the screen as discombobulating and abrasive as possible. Pick your poison: digital ads projected onto the glass that fall off, float, and follow players around the rink, incredibly distracted animated ads built into the boards themselves (that even occasionally consume the puck or players standing in front of them), and of course the non-stop pressure to develop a gambling addiction as the league crams its big sportsbook sponsorships down the viewer’s throat at every opportunity.

It used to be a pleasure to watch hockey online

Now, it’s a tortuous minefield where on any given night I run the risk of missing out a game because the service I pay a couple of hundred bucks for can’t get its act together. Is it any surprise that greater and greater numbers of hockey fans are turning to piracy as an alternative to the truly awful product that Sportsnet Now and the NHL are beaming out across the Internet?

When it’s easier to watch an illegal stream of the most popular sport in Canada than it is to access an expensive, yet incredibly unreliable and decidedly low-rent official service, that’s an embarrassment for the sport. It’s hard to see Sportsnet Now and the NHL’s obsession with digital monetization in its broadcasts as doing anything other than driving fans away from the game of hockey.

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