By Alastair Sharp
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's Rogers Communications Inc <RCIb.TO>, the primary national broadcaster of National Hockey League games, said on Thursday it will begin selling its top sports channels online without a cable subscription.
Taking its cue from services like Netflix Inc <NFLX.O> and Time Warner Inc's <TWX.N> HBO Now, the Canadian cable provider said starting on Friday it will offer a streaming package of six Sportsnet channels for C$24.99 ($19.28) a month.
Rogers, also owner of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, said it will be the first mainstream sports TV channel provider in North America to sell directly to consumers without requiring they have a subscription to cable or satellite.
The Toronto-based company said it hopes to attract sports fans who do not pay for more expensive television packages, and to do so without further eroding a shrinking TV subscriber base.
"We're targeting the cord-nevers, the kids, the millennials, the university students who just don't have that subscription and still want to have access to sports," Bart Yabsley, president of Sportsnet and NHL for Rogers, said in an interview.
The head of Rogers' media unit, Rick Brace, said the product is priced as a premium service designed to create "a distance between what you can get in the all-you-can-eat package on cable or the smaller packages."
The move comes one month after new rules were imposed by Canadian regulators that force cable, satellite and telecom companies to offer a C$25 basic TV package and smaller packages of channels. All channels must be offered individually by the end of the year.
Rogers sells the same Sportsnet channels as an add-on to that basic package for C$18 a month.
Broadcast distributors are dealing with falling television audiences as younger viewers increasingly eschew bulky cable subscriptions in favor of content offered online.
Rogers and cable peer Shaw Communications Inc's <SJRb.TO> joint venture Shomi has since August last year offered film and television content direct to consumers. Rival BCE Inc <BCE.TO> has also launched a streaming TV service called Crave.
The four main North American professional sports leagues, for soccer, basketball, baseball and hockey, also offer some content direct to consumers online. Walt Disney Co's <DIS.N> CEO earlier this month expressed interest in offering some ESPN programming direct to viewers.
($1 = 1.2968 Canadian dollars)
(Editing by David Gregorio)