Key to CFL television ratings increase is — surprise — Southern Ontario

For a league that's had a history of dealing in bad news, there's a lot of good news in the the audience numbers released by the Canadian Football League and TSN today.

First off, viewing audiences are up over last year (4.3 per cent on TSN) and are the second highest in league history. This marks the second year in a row ratings have gone up after a big and rather inexplicable dip in 2011.

While 4.3 per cent doesn't sound like a huge increase, it is significant in an era of fragmented audiences. People are tending to watch less television these days, so any bump has to be celebrated.

At an average of 703,000 viewers a game, the CFL stands second only to hockey as this country's most-watched sport. They're ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays' 540,000, a comparable number since the Jays generally play six games a week while the CFL offers up four.

Combined ratings on TSN and French-language RDS averaged 758,000 viewers per game, an increase of 3.6 per cent over 2012. The RDS numbers are down a tad, but considering how far the Montreal Alouettes have fallen there's no real surprise there.

But while overall ratings increases give the league something to crow about, that's not the real big news. The big news is that they're being driven by the most unlikely source of all: Southern Ontario. Ratings for games involving the Toronto Argonauts were up 26 per cent from last year while audiences for Hamilton (Guelph) Tiger-Cats games rose 14 per cent.

Ratings for all CFL games were up 18 per cent from last year in Southern Ontario and the Hamilton-Toronto clash on Thanksgiving Day drew the league's fourth-largest TV audience of the season with 956,000 viewers.

The league won't supply actual audience numbers for what is known as the CFL's dead zone, which always makes the percentages a bit suspicious. For example, if 12 people watched lawnmower racing last year and 18 tuned in this year, that's a 50 per cent increase. So straight percentages don't really carry a lot of weight.

But I've seen actual Southern Ontario numbers in my previous incarnation and they're generally in line with NFL audiences and Blue Jays audiences -- so the increases are significant.

In some ways it's obvious why ratings are up in Southern Ontario. After years of providing putrid to mediocre football, the Argos are putting an entertaining, winning team on the field. That certainly fuels TV ratings.

The Hamilton situation is a bit of a mystery. The team was, once again, mediocre and playing what basically amounted to 18 road games certainly was a challenge.

Maybe it was the checkered end zone in Guelph that drew in viewers. Maybe it was the mystery of which Henry Burris would show up that drove interest. Or maybe it was the Hamilton folks who watched on TV instead of driving to Guelph.

Whatever the reason, the CFL has to celebrate a victory in a region where it has had few in recent years. And it can look forward to the day it revives the Labour Day Classic in Hamilton -- a game that almost always nears or exceeds the million mark.