The Great Canadian Ratings Report: CFL audiences drop 15 per cent after tough season

Chris Zelkovich
·Chris Zelkovich
Saturday's game between the Ottawa RedBlacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats drew good ratings in a down year for the CFL. (CFL PHOTO - Patrick Doyle)
Saturday's game between the Ottawa RedBlacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats drew good ratings in a down year for the CFL. (CFL PHOTO - Patrick Doyle)

You know what kind of summer and fall it's been when your TV ratings take a double-digit hit and you take solace in the realization it could have been worse.

The final numbers are in and the CFL's television ratings averaged 590,000 a game on TSN and French-language RDS -- a 15 per cent drop from 2014 when they averaged 700,000. The biggest hit was taken by TSN, which saw a 19 per cent decline in ratings as its games averaged 539,000 viewers.

Worse yet, the 2015 drop follows a 6 per cent decrease the year before that.

On the positive side, ratings on French-language RDS were up 6 per cent despite a poor showing by the Montreal Alouettes, keeping the overall French and English ratings decrease to 14 per cent.

"We understand it's been a bad year for us as far as television goes, but considering all the factors we probably could have gotten killed and we weren't," said CFL communications director Paulo Senra.

Senra isn't just issuing PR spin talking about those negative factors. The CFL didn't just face a perfect storm of woes this year, it was a perfect storm combined with Hurricane Katrina and the Great Flood.

To start with, the Pan Am Games forced the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts out of their homes for a good part of the summer, meaning the CFL had almost no presence in Southern Ontario early in the season. To make matters worse, the Toronto Blue Jays forced the Argos to hit the road again in the fall, playing ``home" games in Ottawa and Hamilton before as few as 3,500 fans.

Ah yes, the Blue Jays. Once they captured the nation's attention at the end of July, they sucked the life out of television ratings, leaving little more than scraps for the rest of the country's teams. 

Then there was the early demise of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The league's biggest ratings driver was pushed to the sidelines long before mid-season and audiences dropped accordingly. The fact the league's two biggest TV draws -- the Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers -- didn't make the playoffs certainly exacerbated the situation.

So, really, it could have been a lot worse.

But there were some positive signs.

"We still had 16 games over 700,000 and one over a million, which is why we're expecting big numbers for the playoffs," Senra said. "We're enthusiastic about what's going on in Quebec. Ratings on RDS were up 6 per cent increase with a team that didn't make the playoffs."

It's not as if the CFL has fallen off the map. CFL games still easily outdraw the Toronto Raptors and any of the MLS teams. Saturday's East Division showdown in Ottawa was beaten only by Hockey Night In Canada that day and Sunday's meaningless game between Montreal and Saskatchewan drew almost 400,000 going head-to-head with the NFL.

On the other hand, two consecutive years of ratings decreases is not a good trend. Ratings on TSN have dropped 23 per cent since 2013 and that kind of trend is often hard to reverse. There are about 165,000 people a game who've lost interest in two seasons and getting them back may not be easy.

This is especially worrisome for TSN, which has invested heavily in the CFL and needs strong football ratings to help compensate for the loss of the NHL national deal.

But there is hope. For one, the Southern Ontario situation won't be repeated -- especially with the Argos in a stadium that should help them avoid those Tuesday night home games as well as those home openers in northern Alberta.

For another, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg have to be better. Well, at least one of them will be better.

But the big factor could be the Blue Jays. Capturing that kind of magic two years in a row is unlikely, though not impossible. If they do, things could be tough for the CFL again.

And bringing back viewers who found other things to watch is never easy.

But, as Senra says, the CFL "is a resilient brand.

"And don't forget, prior to the end of July we were easily outdrawing the Blue Jays." 

It will need all the resilience it can muster.

Here are the most-watched English-language sports events from the past weekend, according to Numeris overnight ratings:

1. NHL, Leafs-Caps/Bruins-Habs/Flyers-Jets/Sens-Canes, Saturday, CBC-Rogers: 1,888,000

2. NFL, Broncos-Colts/Giants-Bucs, Sunday, CTV: 834,000

3. NFL, Early afternoon games, Sunday, CTV: 731,000

4. NHL, Penguins at Flames, Saturday, CBC: 712,000

5. CFL, Tiger-Cats at RedBlacks, Saturday, TSN: 634,000

6. CFL, Stampeders at Lions, Saturday, TSN: 489,000

7. NHL, Penguins at Oilers, Friday, Sportsnet: 454,000

8. NHL, Red Wings at Maple Leafs, Friday, TSN: 451,000 (Ontario only)

9. NHL, Oilers at Blackhawks, Sunday, Sportsnet: 406,000

10. CFL, Roughriders at Alouettes, Sunday, TSN: 394,000

11. NFL, Eagles at Cowboys, Sunday, TSN: 378,000 (NBC audience not measured)

12. NHL, Canucks at Sabres, Saturday, Sportsnet: 368,000

13. CFL, Blue Bombers at Argonauts, Friday, TSN: 357,000

14. NBA, Raptors at Heat, Sunday, Sportsnet One: 236,000

15. NBA, Raptors at Magic, Friday, Sportsnet One: 228,000

16. Auto racing, NASCAR Texas 500, Sunday, TSN: 219,000 (NBC audience not measured)

17. Gymnastics, World championships, Saturday, CBC: 209,000

18. UFC, Belfort vs. Henderson, Saturday, TSN: 204,000

19. Speed-skating, World short-track, Saturday, CBC: 197,000

20. Soccer, Tottenham at Arsenal, Sunday, TSN: 153,000

21. Figure skating, Cup of China, Saturday, CBC: 152,000

22. Soccer, West Bromwich at Manchester United, Saturday, Sportsnet: 150,000

23. MLS, Portland at Vancouver, Sunday, TSN: 153,000

24. Soccer, Chelsea at Stoke City, Saturday, TSN: 125,000

THREE TO WATCH

The smell of baseball in the morning: If you're still suffering Jays withdrawal and don't mind getting up real early (or staying up real late), the WBSC Premier 12 tournament might be the cure. A pretty reasonable facsimile of the Team Canada that captured hearts during the Pan Am Games is squaring off against the best national baseball teams in the world this week. Manager Ernie Whitt's team will get a good test on Thursday (5:30 a.m., Sportsnet One) against Chinese Taipei. (If you value your sleep, Sportsnet One will replay the game at 2 p.m. ET.)

Men (and women) with brooms: The Grand Slam of Curling's National gets a new wrinkle this year, with women finally getting a share of the spotlight. The best rinks in the world will exchange in-turns and draws in hopes of sharing in the $200,000 purse. Coverage starts Thursday (Noon ET, Sportsnet) and continues through Sunday's finals (Noon ET, CBC and 4 p.m. ET, Sportsnet.)

Any given Sunday: Now that the regular season is out of the way, the CFL gets down to the serious business of determining which teams get the privilege of playing for the Grey Cup later this month. Things start with a traditional rivalry game between the (Sometime) Toronto Argonauts meeting the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East semi-final (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, TSN). Following that, the Calgary Stampeders host the B.C. Lions (4:30 p.m. ET, TSN.)

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