The CFL got exactly what it paid for on Sunday. And something it didn't pay for.
The league took a gamble in hiring Justin Bieber to provide halftime entertainment at the 100th Grey Cup game. The move paid off in the highest English language TV rating for a Grey Cup game (5.5 million average audience) since networks began using portable people meters (PPMs).
The highest overall Canadian rating came in 2009's Montreal / Saskatchewan game when TSN/ RDS scored a 6.1.
Even people who can't tell a linebacker from a financial backer tuned in to catch Bieber, Gordon Lightfoot, Carly Rae Jepson and Marianas Trench perform during a 47-minute halftime in the Calgary / Toronto contest. At an average of 6.1 million average viewers, the halftime pop spectacle outperformed the game itself.
Unfortunately for the league, it didn't have a compelling second half of football to hook the casual fans who'd wandered in to find Bieber shaking his assets. Toronto squashed any entertainment value, strangling Calgary in a bloodless manner guaranteed to send non-fans back to Boardwalk Empire. Not the best selling point for Canadian football.
The beatdown did produce the unpaid-for benefit to the league's Toronto head office – a win by the Argonauts at a moment when they seemed ready to fade into the wallpaper permanently. The win may pay dividends in the next few years or it may not. Much rides on getting a stadium to call their own for the Argos. And whether David Braley finds committed new owners to relieve him of his double duty as CFL owner.
But it certainly worked better than the Argos losing.
The ratings were cause for joy in commissioner Mark Cohon's office on Monday. He's in the process of selling rights to the next national TV package. Bieber or not, these numbers will allow him to ask – and probably get – a raise on the estimated $16-million TSN pays now.
TSN deserves praise for getting the CFL back to this level, but sentiment will play a small role this time out if another network comes up with more money. Remember that the CFL dumped CBC after a half century of coverage during the last contract talks.
Even better news for football fans like, oh, a certain big-city mayor. Friday night's Vanier Cup final – also a lopsided game won by Laval over McMaster – attracted a record TV mob, too. The game, from the Rogers Centre, on RDS / TSN racked up an average audience of 910,000 viewers, an unprecedented number for university football, the red-headed stepchild of Canadian sport.
The healthy number is a reflection of last year's classic overtime game between the same two teams, won by McMaster, and by the vibrant interest in Quebec for their football teams. It's no small thing in this country when the interests of Quebec and Canada mesh so perfectly. So the number is something to be treasured.
And one more factor in favour of the large TV audience. Both games in Toronto this past weekend were played in the enormous vacuum left by the NHL taking a powder for another lockout. People still want to watch sports, and on this late November Friday night, the Vanier Cup looked like a reasonable substitute for the missing hockey games.
If Toronto mayor Rob Ford's favoured past-time was ballet or theatre, not football, do you reckon he'd be in as much trouble as he is now? Just asking.
JUST THE FACTS
Part of the problem for the CFL in Toronto is experts who don't know jack about the CFL since Doug Flutie left yet hold forth with great opinions about its viability. Like the radio savant on Monday who announced (after prompting on the name) that Stefan Logan left the B.C. Lions last year. Logan's been in the NFL since 2009 with two different NFL teams.
He also opined that Seattle's Brandon Browner hadn't stayed very long in the CFL. Browner was a three-time CFL All Star who played four years with the Calgary Stampeders before heading south to Seattle, where he's facing PED trouble.
On the other hand, the football "expert" couldn't pronounce Detroit Lion Ndamukong Suh's first name, either. So the CFL has that going for them.