The early television numbers for this year's Grey Cup certainly aren't bad, but they do represent a substantial decline from last year. BBM Canada has an average of 4.6 million viewers tuning in at any given point to the broadcasts on TSN and RDS (TSN production truck seen above), which is down quite a bit from the average of 6.04 million who tuned in last year. However, this should be kept in perspective: this was still the fourth-most-watched Grey Cup ever, TSN's fifth-highest rated event ever, and over 11 million people (close to a third of Canada's population) tuned in at some point, so this certainly isn't terrible news overall for either TSN or the CFL (especially when you consider that these numbers have some rather large potential for error). There also are some pretty substantial reasons why the numbers weren't as good this year as in the last two. Here are three of them.
1. A not-that-close, defensive game: As TSN play-by-play man Chris Cuthbert (and many of us pundits as well) predicted in advance, this was a pretty defensive game for the vast majority of the night. It also wasn't that close for most of the night. The final score of 34-23 was a little deceptive, as it was only 14-6 at haltime and 24-9 through three quarters.
A defensive game itself doesn't necessarily kill the ratings, as Montreal's 21-18 victory over Saskatchewan in 2010 drew 6.04 million viewers on average, but that had a couple of advantages. First, it wasn't billed as a defensive game in advance. Second, it had all the hype of the rematch from the 13th-man disaster the previous year. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it was close throughout, with a score of 11-8 Saskatchewan at half and the game knotted at 11 after three quarters. Fans of offensive football may not have loved the 2010 Grey Cup, but the outcome was in question throughout the entire night. By contrast, Sunday's Grey Cup was largely decided midway through the third quarter, and it didn't even look all that close at the half. Keep in mind that these ratings are averages, so they depend on the numbers of people watching at any given moment. A not-close, not-offensively-thrilling game doesn't retain viewers all that well.
2. The markets involved: In a lot of ways, the Montreal - Saskatchewan matchup we saw in 2009 and 2010 is the single best one for television. First, it's an interesting clash of East and West, French and English, which can work quite well to pull in casual non-CFL fans. Second, the history between the two teams from 2009 likely provided a substantial boost in 2010. Third and most importantly, though, those are two mammoth television markets for the CFL in general. Roughriders' games tend to be the top-rated ones on TSN (and that's thanks not just to the vast numbers of people across Saskatchewan who tune in, but also the Rider fan diaspora across the country), while the Alouettes have a huge following across Quebec; 1.1 million people tuned into RDS last year for the game. Montreal fans may also be the most difficult fanbase to pull in for a Grey Cup game not involving their team, as many Quebec fans are far more interested in the Alouettes than the CFL in general.
Of course, the Grey Cup probably did just fine in B.C. and Winnipeg this year (the game drew a 29.3 rating in the Vancouver extended market and over half the population tuned in at one point), but I'm not sure that makes up for the drop-off in the Quebec and Saskatchewan markets. It's worth pointing out that by Wikipedia estimates, Manitoba has a population of 1,232,654 and B.C. has 4,510,858, while Quebec has 8,008,000 and Saskatchewan has 1,053,960. That's a total of 5,743,512 people in the two provinces involved this year, with 9,061,960 in the two provinces involved last year, a difference of 3,318,448 (and keep in mind that the Saskatchewan market always punches above its weight). Not all the people in any province tune in, of course, but it helps to be working with provinces with massive potential numbers.
3. Poor play early on: This is similar to point #1, but also a bit different. As 2010 shows, a defensive game doesn't necessarily kill ratings. However, the 2010 game featured some fantastic defensive plays early on, and it also had more show up in the box score, with four total sacks and an interception. By contrast, there were only two sacks and an interception in Sunday's game. The defences were still crucially important and they were generally playing well, but it was more about putting pressure on quarterbacks than thunderous hits or incredible defensive plays, which are easier to sell. Plenty of the errors were unforced, too.
A massive sack gets viewers up off the couch; pressure that causes an overthrown ball to sail out of bounds isn't as interesting, and that can contribute to problems with viewer retention. It was a solid defensive showing, especially by B.C., but not one that necessarily made great television. The offences finally both got it into gear as the night went on, but much of that (especially on the Winnipeg side) came so late that many viewers had probably already changed the channel.
These numbers aren't a crisis for TSN or the CFL, as the Grey Cup was still one of the most-watched sporting events of the year in Canada. There's lots to be proud of here, and this shouldn't cause too many problems. There are good, understandable reasons why the numbers were down this year, some of which are mentioned above, and none of those are within the control of the league or its broadcasters. Not every Grey Cup game can be a close, offensive shootout involving key markets, so this one did just fine for what it was.