Those Toronto Maple Leafs. Can't live with `em, can't live without `em.
That's the dilemma Canada's sports networks face when it comes to those lovable losers from Toronto, who have achieved the seemingly impossible feat of both being a drag on TV ratings at the same time as being a boost to ratings.
Take Saturday's Hockey Night In Canada early broadcast, for example. It was one of those rare Saturday nights when the Leafs weren't playing -- a Royal Commission inquiry may be called -- so CBC and its overlords from Rogers were forced to air a game between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens.
At first glance, this all-Canadian matchup looked like a potential winner. Both teams are doing well this season and the Canadiens, like the Leafs, have a national following. Both are experiencing strong ratings regionally this season, with the Habs numbers up 4 per cent on Sportsnet and the Senators audiences on TSN a whopping 62 per cent higher than they were a year ago.
Adding to those hopes was the fact that it was a pretty good game.
So what happened? The game drew 1.2 million viewers, the smallest audience of the year. And it wasn't even close. Prior to last Saturday, the smallest prime-time Saturday night audience was 1.58 million. Most have been closer to 2 million.
Worse for CBC and Rogers, that small audience then led to Game 2 and the smallest late-night ratings of the season (605,000.)
For the most part, explaining TV ratings for the NHL is fairly simple. Winning teams draw well, losers not so much. That's pretty much borne out by what's been happening with NHL regional audiences this season.
The teams that are doing better than they were last year are drawing bigger audiences. The Senators are up 62 per cent on TSN while the Oilers are up 19 per cent and the Habs up 4 per cent on Sportsnet. Those that are down are dragging down ratings, too. Sportsnet and TSN have seen Leafs ratings drop (9 per cent and 28 per cent respectively), whhile the Canucks (27 per cent) and Flames (5 per cent) are hurting Sportsnet's overall average.
The only outlier is Winnipeg, whose record pretty much matches last year's. The Jets, for some inexplicable reason, are producing 29 per cent higher ratings for TSN's regional broadcasts. Figuring out the reasons for that will be left to greater minds.
Greater minds will also be required to figure out the enduring appeal of the Leafs. Although their regional ratings are down 9 per cent on Sportsnet and 28 per cent on TSN, and Leaf-dominated Hockey Night In Canada ratings are off 7 per cent, the fact is that TV needs them.
UPS AND DOWNS: It's possible some of those Leafs fans were watching UFC on Saturday night. After all, with fighting down in the NHL a guy's gotta get his fist-to-the-nose fix somewhere. Saturday's UFC preliminaries averaged 358,000 viewers, TSN's biggest audience to date for mixed martial arts. ... On the other hand, a winning record doesn't seem to have boosted the Toronto Raptors ratings very much. Ratings are ahead of where they were a couple of years ago, but basketball seems to have hit a ceiling.
1. NHL, Senators at Canadiens, Saturday, CBC-Rogers: 1,200,000
2. NFL, Cowboys-Packers/Raiders-Broncos, Sunday, CTV: 965,000
3. NFL, Bills-Eagles/Falcons-Panthers/Seahawks-Ravens/Steelers-Bengals, Sunday, CTV: 834,000
4. NHL, Rangers at Flames, Saturday, CBC-Rogers: 605,000
5. NFL, Canucks at Blackhawks, Sunday, Sportsnet: 432,000
6. NFL, Patriots at Texans, Sunday, TSN: 385,000 (NBC audience not measured)
7. Mixed martial arts, UFC 194 preliminaries, Saturday, TSN: 358,000
8. Curling, Grand Slam men's final, Sunday, Sportsnet: 365,000
9. Curling, Grand Slam women's final, Sunday, Sportsnet: 356,000
10. Curling, Grand Slam semifinals, Saturday, Sportsnet: 303,000
11. Curling, Grand Slam men's quarterfinals, Saturday, Sportsnet: 277,000
12. NHL, Rangers at Oilers, Friday, Sportsnet West: 266,000
13. Curling, Grand Prix women's quarterfinals, Saturday, Sportsnet: 261,000
14. NHL, Jets at Blackhawks, Friday, TSN: 252,000 (regional)
15. NBA, Bucks at Raptors, Friday, TSN: 218,000
16. NBA, Sixers at Raptors, Sunday, TSN: 181,000
17. Figure skating, Grand Prix, Saturday, CBC: 178,000
18. Mixed martial arts, Ultimate Fighter, Friday, TSN: 168,000
19. Figure skating, Grand Prix, Sunday, CBC: 167,000
20. Curling, Grand Prix evening round robin, Friday, Sportsnet: 164,000
21. NHL, Kings at Penguins, Friday, Sportsnet One: 148,000
22. Curling, Grand Prix afternoon round robin, Friday, Sportsnet: 145,000
23. NHL, Panthers at Bruins, Saturday, Sportsnet: 134,000
24.Curling, Grand Prix noon round robin, Friday, Sportsnet: 133,000
25. Soccer, Manchester United at Bournemouth, Sunday, TSN: 131,000
26. Soccer, West Brom at Liverpool, Sunday, Sportsnet One: 125,000
THREE TO WATCH
When the Bills were (almost) great: This may seem like one of those urban legends -- like the Leafs winning Stanley Cups -- but the fact is the Buffalo Bills were once a model football franchise, appearing in four straight Super Bowl games. Of course, being Buffalo, they lost them all, but that doesn't detract from a great run. (Okay, it does, but Buffalo needs all the support it can get.) ESPN's 30 for 30 series takes a look at those great teams in the Four Falls of Buffalo (Friday, 7 p.m., ET, TSN2.)
Stanley Cup preview?: There's a long way to go before the Stanley Cup finalists are decided, but if the season were to end right now two of the favourites would be the Montreal Canadiens and Dallas Stars. A possible preview of that final will be played Saturday (7 p.m. ET, City.) But remember, there's a long way to go ...
Joy to the worlds: The holiday season is upon us, which means once again Canadian sports fans will focus their attention on pimply-faced young men. The world junior hockey championship starts Boxing Day in Helsinki, but Canadians can get a look at this year's Team Canada this weekend with some pre-tournament games. Canada takes on Belarus on Saturday (Noon ET, TSN) to get things rolling.
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