Even in its darkest days, the Canadian Football League could always point to TV ratings to prove it was a relevant sports attraction. While franchises failed and expansion cratered, the numbers from the box always belied those salon types writing obits for the league. That's why the steep drop in the league's average minute 2011 TV ratings on TSN/ RDS-- 876,000 (+2) in 2010 down to 700,000-- is concerning for a league that's been trending upward for the past decade. (TSN's ratings number alone is 637,000.)
The hints of trouble came when TSN and the CFL declined to release ratings before season's end. Sources had told Usual Suspects privately of hearing of drops from 15 to 20 per cent year over year. There were concerns this might mean that an anticipated spike in rights payments next time (2014) might be in jeopardy. But it wasn't till Monday's release that the decline was officially confirmed.
Both the league and its sole broadcast partner were quick to spin the puzzling drop. "Attendance is up, licensing is up, TSN's sales are up and CFL.ca is up," CFL commissioner Mark Cohon told Usual Suspects Tuesday. "The ratings numbers are not tracking along with our other businesses."
Cohon and TSN both concede that they have no sure answers for where the viewers went. "Our reach remains the same, but viewers are just not staying as long," suggests Cohon. For certain, both Toronto and Saskatchewan tanking - plus B.C. starting 0-6 - did the CFL no favours. Along with Montreal, those teams are major generators of ratings for the league. Cohon also points to the vagaries of the new Portable People Meters which assemble the data. "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. If just 10 nor 12 people come out it can have a profound impact.
"This was a new system last year, so we'll have to see where it goes next year," Cohon added. "We were the biggest beneficiary of PPMs last season, up over 100 per cent in some areas. I think a three-year average will help us see where we are. The CFL is still the No. 1 summer TV property out there. We draw bigger Canadian television audiences than the NFL, Blue Jays, and MLS."
Cohon says that he doesn't blame TSN for the decline. "TSN is a great partner and we're very satisfied with them. Still, with the 100th Grey Cup coming next year we're always pushing our partners to do more, and we'll push them to do more." Such as? "More attention on upcoming athletes," suggests Cohon. "Extending initiatives with miking referees and quarterbacks. Continuing projects such as The Extra Yard, the Argonauts documentary.
"As Ray Kroc, the McDonald's founder used to say, 'when you're green you're growing; when you're ripe you're starting to rot'."
Cohon didn't want to be led into a detailed discussion of the next TV rights negotiations - "they won't be for another 18 months unless TSN wants to talk now" - but he did concede that the CFL might discuss internally the merits of having a single broadcast partner as opposed to several platforms in Canada. (CBC, which just lost FIFA TV rights after 2014 and could lose NHL rights in a few years, would likely be itching to get back into broadcasting the league.) For its part, TSN tells Usual Suspects that, with two years to go on the current deal, it is no hurry to cut the CFL a new cheque just yet.
Next Year: Looking forward, the CFL is pulling out the stops for 2012 with the 100th Grey Cup celebration. That might cause ratings to rise again. The Argos and Roughriders could also do the league a favour and mount a competitive team next season. Without them a second straight year, it will struggle. The emergence of some new young stars to go with Travis Lulay, Jerome Messam and Drew Tate would help, too.
Plus, TSN is heavily committed to the London 2012 Sumer Olympics which run from July 27- August 12-- the heart of the CFL's summer season. "We don't anticipate any scheduling issues for our CFL games over that time," says TSN spokesman Greg McIsaac. "With the different time zones, the Olympics are primarily live in the morning and afternoon in most Canadian markets." Still with so many of CTV/ TSN's channels and platforms tied up with Olympic coverage, the CFL will struggle for attention.
In short, both the league and the broadcaster have some challenges ahead if they seek to restore ratings to their 2010 level.
LNH.COM: We mentioned Monday the NHL being a little tardy launching its French-only website to go along with sites in Swedish, Finnish, Russian, Czech and Slovak. We're pleased to note that as of Tuesday you can follow LNH.com in French. We'll be waiting for that Shane Doan feature any day now.
Penn State Stumbles: Er, anybody out there heard of Graham James? As the Penn State pedophile case unravels in the U.S. media it's amazing how few of the titans of American sports journalism have made reference to the precedent of James and his molestation of young hockey players such as Theo Fleury. As with the NBA strike, hockey and its culture have much to teach U.S. sports in these moments of pain and heartbreak. But for all the teaching moments available, hockey might as well live on a foreign planet for most of these media people. Sad, really.
Anyone who saw the wildfire reaction to the James' story in Canada would know not, as Penn State did Tuesday, to flip off the media by cancelling head coach Joe Paterno's weekly presser - the same one he's done for 43 years.
A Peeling Issue: NFL linebacker Bart Scott must have thought the Penn State scandal afforded him cover for Stupidest Human Of the Week award. Then Jets defensive star told ESPN New York that the Jets/ Giants rivalry was punk stuff compared to Baltimore and Washington. How hot was the competition between Ravens and Redskins? The teams used to fight over strippers.
"When you are in a small place like Baltimore and the temperature is relatively cold – hey you compete over the same chicks," Scott told ESPN's Michael Kay. "That's a football player's favourite spot. Especially young football players. It was always a rivalry. Guys fight about, 'hey that is my girlfriend' and 'that's my girlfriend', but here? Five million people, maybe more. There is plenty for everybody."
Bart, you might just want to wait by your phone. We think NFL commissioner Roger Goddell will be calling you any moment time now.