USUAL SUSPECTS

CFL looking to pick up ratings fumble and run

Special to The Globe and Mail

For the CFL, its TV ratings on TSN and RDS in 2011 were like a crack-back block. Unseen, unanticipated and a shock to the system. From an average audience of 876,000 on TSN and RDS in 2010, the average audience plummeted to 700,000 for televised CFL games (637,000 on TSN) in the 2011 season.

For a league that had been trending to the positive and a broadcaster unaccustomed to reverses, the number hit hard in the days after the B.C. Lions’ Grey cup win. There were some tangible reasons for the fall-off. Even though the Toronto Argonauts struggle to put fans into the cavernous Rogers Centre, they remain a strong TV attraction in Southern Ontario. Their complete collapse on the field was reflected in very weak TV numbers.

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Likewise, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the CFL’s version of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, also had a dreadful season, and the prairie fans who follow their team like religion apparently couldn’t bear to watch their heroes suffer. Even though the Riders represent a small market, they attract a loyal TV bunch. Saskatchewan’s stumble produced a big hit to TSN’s ratings. It also didn’t help that the eventual Grey Cup winners from B.C. got off to an 0-5 start, dampening interest on the Left Coast for much of the early season.

The CFL also argued that the portable people metres now used to track ratings in lieu of the old diary system were not kind to the league. “In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the sample size is so small [fewer than 100 people]that people coming in and out of games has the effect of skewing numbers,” commissioner Mark Cohon said at the time the ratings were released. “If just 10 or 12 people come out, it can have a profound impact.”

With the CFL’s TV rights to be negotiated next year, the league needs a strong showing to keep the broadcast revenues flowing. There has been talk of the CFL considering allowing a second broadcaster back into its package (CBC has long mourned the loss of its CFL package), but TSN wants to control the exclusive rights. A further drop in ratings will not help either scenario for the CFL.

Both the league and the broadcaster feel 2011 was a ratings blip. Certainly, the CFL has an opportunity in the 100th anniversary year of the Grey Cup game to reverse those numbers if a few factors work its way. As CFL training camps open this weekend, for instance, six of the nine CFL cities are coming off NHL seasons where the home team either missed the playoffs or, in the case of Vancouver, was eliminated in the first round. There is no competition for the hearts of those local fans looking for a winner after their hockey teams face-planted. A turnaround by the Argos under new quarterback Ricky Ray would help exploit the Toronto vacuum.

The league is pulling out the stops to mark the centennial of the Grey Cup game this season with an extensive week in Toronto. In addition, TSN will broadcast eight original documentaries commissioned by its parent company to celebrate the history and legend of the game that neither time nor custom could kill. Ranging from the story of former quarterback Chuck Ealey, a black star who found a home in Canada, to the 1956 plane crash that took the lives of four CFL all-stars, including the uncle of current Calgary Stampeders player Edwin Harrison. (We’ll have more on these documentaries shortly.) The CFL has lived through too many real life-and-death struggles in the past to consider this year make-or-break. It’s not that urgent. But the TV ratings the league and its network draw in 2012 will certainly determine the landscape for the next decade.

What’s up with docs?

Speaking of documentaries, Sportsnet has added the HBO 24/7 series to its stable this season. The significant documentary that every year follows two teams headed to the Winter Classic game has redrawn the formula for the NHL in terms of support in the United States, winning Emmys and creating a new perspective for the league by showing its players behind the scenes. Films like 24/7 are redefining how sports leagues promote themselves.

Although not a huge ratings grabber, 24/7 is a prestigious product for Sportsnet to wrest away from TSN. Especially this fall with a Toronto Maple Leafs-Detroit Red Wings matchup, having the Canadian rights will be significant. The major question for 24/7 this season will be what happens if the coming collective agreement talks between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association cancel any or all of the 20012-13 season? Sportsnet officials would not speculate publicly, but sources tell Usual Suspects that the network is confident the labour talks will wind up in time for the regular season at the latest. Play would likely need to resume by Dec. 1 to gather material for four documentaries in time for the Winter Classic.