The Winnipeg Blue Bombers' decision to preemptively elect to sit Buck Pierce out wasn't the only unusual CFL story this week. One that's perhaps even more unexpected has arisen in B.C., where Lowell Ullrich and Ed Willes of The Province have reported that the 9-4 Lions are leading the league not just in the standings, but also in the TV ratings. From Ullrich:
In fact, the Lions should be entitled to a fairly strong voice when the CFL eventually starts to start about the next broadcast rights agreement. The last seven B.C. games have been the highest-rated CFL games on TSN. Overall, the Lions have been tops in eight of the first 13 weeks this season, including a 909,000 rating Saturday against Saskatchewan, another viewer-friendly rival.
In addition, all four CFL games beat any TV sports program in the country on the weekend, and the Lions game was better than that day's broadcast of the Ryder Cup on TSN, a UFC card on Sportsnet and Whitecaps contest on TSN2 combined.
The CFL's overall ratings success is good news for both the league and TSN, obviously, but it's hardly unexpected. This league generally sells very well on television, and despite what some have said about the ratings decline last year, the ratings may not have told the whole story. It's not surprising to see the CFL dramatically outdrawing those other sports (which raises questions about why TSN felt it was necessary to air the Ryder Cup's conclusion on both TSN and TSN2 and postpone the CFL game, as far more people watched the latter event). What is surprising is that it's the Lions leading the way on the ratings front, though, especially when you consider their unique circumstances.
You see, as Willes points out, the Lions haven't come close to selling out the mammoth new B.C. Place. That's led them to black out the majority of their home games on local standard-definition television; Ullrich notes that the last four home games have been blacked out and Saturday's contest against Calgary is likely to follow suit. Some of us have long taken exception with that strategy, arguing that it's not going to bring more people in and that it's going to hurt the team's (and thus, the league's) TV ratings. The first argument still holds true, as the team's averaging just 29,326 fans a game (not bad, but close to their season averages since 2004) even with the blackouts, but they're obviously still pulling in ratings. Amazingly, despite being cut off standard-definition television in the vast majority of their local market (according to people I've spoken with, blackouts have extended as far as Chilliwack, about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver), the Lions are even beating the noted TV heavyweight Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Does that validate the blackout strategy? Of course not. In fact, without the blackouts, the Lions would likely be pulling in even better ratings. Sure, many Lower Mainland fans can still watch the game either on their personal HDTVs or by going to a bar, but not everyone has TSNHD or can find the time, effort and money needed to go to a bar to watch a game. These blackouts are impacting people who would otherwise watch the games; how many's a matter of debate and depends on your perspective, but there's certainly some impact there. The remarkable thing is that the Lions are putting up such strong television ratings even with these blackouts. Perhaps that speaks to their success in drawing fans across the province, perhaps it reflects that many in B.C. are excited because the team's been so impressive or perhaps it shows that fans of opposing teams see the Lions as a marquee, must-watch matchup. Whatever the cause, B.C.'s dominating the TV ratings as well as the league standings—and the Lions would be even more dominant and boosting the CFL's profile even more if they weren't blocking some fans from watching.