© THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
A man leaves the CBC building in Toronto.
Veteran sportscasters Steve Armitage and Mark Lee are the latest high-profile casualties of budget cuts at the CBC.
Armitage, 70, lent his booming voice to CBC sports events for some 49 years — handling play-by-play on 29 seasons of “Hockey Night in Canada,” 27 Grey Cups and 15 Olympic Games.
“I loved my job,” he said. “I felt like I had been dodging the bullet. I really thought if the sports department was going to take a major hit, I’d be high on their target list because of the years I had worked.
“I was probably due to go. I didn’t want to go because I liked my job, but when you gotta go, you gotta go.”
The majority of CBC sportscasters are hired on contract. Of four prominent sportscasters the network had on staff, Scott Russell is keeping his job. Armitage and Lee were let go, while Brenda Irving is moving to another department.
The CBC lost NHL hockey rights last November to Rogers Media in a whopping $5.2-billion deal, leading to a dramatic loss of advertising revenue for a network already struggling with federal budget cuts.
In April, CBC president Hubert Lacroix announced that 657 jobs would be slashed to meet a $130-million budget shortfall. Lacroix said at the time that 42 per cent of the sports department would be laid off, trimming 38 sports jobs from 90 current positions.
He also announced in April that the broadcaster would no longer compete for professional sports rights and would cover fewer sports events, including amateur sports.
Armitage and Lee learned they were being laid off in early May and recently wrapped up their final days at CBC. Both were given the opportunity to bump newer employees out of their positions but chose not to displace younger workers.
Lee said he’s struggling to adjust to his new life after spending 34 years with the public broadcaster. At 58, he is not ready to retire and hopes to find work in the industry.
“I’m still feeling a little bit lost. It’s only been about 10 days since my last day there,” he said. “It becomes a real big part of your life. You have a second family at work — people you get to know really well and you travel with and spend large amounts of time on the road with at major events like the Olympics, Hockey Night in Canada, the CFL on CBC.”
The Gemini Award-winning sportscaster fondly recalled some of his proudest moments at CBC, including calling Usain Bolt’s world record-setting Olympic gold medal race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and producing a documentary on Muhammad Ali.
Lee said CBC simply cannot compete at this point with Rogers and Bell Media for professional sports rights due to federal budget cuts. He said CBC has been doing all it can to keep certain types of programming on the air, but it is becoming impossible.
“I hope that Canadians take notice. I hope that Canadians really cherish their CBC and lobby the government to maybe fund it the way it should be funded. It’s one of the poorest funded public broadcasters in the western world,” he said.
Jeffrey Orridge, executive director of sports properties and general manager of the Olympics at CBC, said it was “extraordinarily sad” to see Armitage and Lee go.
“They are consummate professionals, veterans in the industry and they’re both iconic. Frankly, their talent and their personalities are irreplaceable,” he said.
However, he said that CBC was in “very challenging times” and significant cuts had to be made to the sports department.
“I think this is part of an overall strategic decision to respond to the changing landscape in sports at CBC and really, in response to the overall picture at CBC/Radio-Canada. Resources have been significantly diminished and decisions have to be made,” he said.
Carmel Smyth, national president of the Canadian Media Guild, which represents most CBC workers, called it “appalling” the Conservative government has cut CBC so deeply.
“Who will cover amateur sports and give our athletes the exposure they need?” she asked. “We are losing exceptional talent that takes decades to develop. Will kids today ever have a chance to become the next Steve Armitage or Mark Lee?”
Armitage joined CBC in 1965 as a late-night sports reporter in Halifax — “There was one criteria: you needed to know how to type,” he said with a laugh — and went on to win three Gemini Awards, the Foster Hewitt Award and was inducted into the B.C. Hall of Fame during his nearly 50-year career. In the past two weeks, he’s been enjoying his countryside home near Halifax but misses sportscasting.
He said he doesn’t have “sour grapes” about being forced into retirement but made clear he disagrees with the direction CBC is taking on sports.
“The CBC has decided to put its priorities and what little money it has left into other areas,” he said, adding that remaining sports staff are “dedicated, hard-working and will do their level best to preserve what’s left.”
“But what worries me is if you keep taking people away, you take away the experience and the depth that CBC Sports had, and the ability to mount major projects and continue to do the high level of work and keep up the standards that the CBC had for many years. That becomes more and more difficult because the people just aren’t there.”