The Great Canadian Ratings Report: MLS could be on verge of a new era on TV
After a lifetime of languishing among the bottom feeders of the television world, this is a golden opportunity for the MLS to finally take centre stage.
Whether it will or not depends on how Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact fare in the rest of the playoffs and how many Canadians actually care.
So far, few have cared enough to turn their television sets to whichever channel has been showing the games. Ratings are dismal, with a capital D.
They are so minute that Canada's MLS teams seldom crack the 100,000 mark and are often so low that the networks and teams don't even release comprehensive ratings information.
But there is hope, at least based on what happened Sunday.
Toronto FC's victory over New York City FC in the first game of the MLS conference semifinal averaged 238,000 viewers on TSN. While that pales in comparison with every other major sports regular season numbers, it's certainly a good start.
Add in the fact that the game was up against some pretty stiff competition that day – the NFL, NHL, the World Series – and league officials have to be encouraged enough to finally believe that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train.
The television story of the MLS in Canada has always been a puzzler. Stadiums are generally full and the fan base is incredibly vocal and loyal. Heck, TFC had a fan club before the team signed its first player.
But that interest never translated into good television numbers. TFC's first game after its multi-million-dollar spending spree a few years ago generated an opening-day TV audience of more than 300,000 viewers. But that was pretty much a one-off as nothing else that season, or since, has come close. Granted, Canada's teams haven't exactly excelled, but that alone can't explain the lack of TV presence.
In many ways, the MLS experience mirrors that of the Toronto Raptors, who have only recently begun to enjoy television success. (The 310,000 audience for Friday's game against Cleveland is a good indication that last year's playoff run has expanded the team's fan base.) Both sports have a young audience, an audience that is not prone to spending two or three hours in front of a TV set. But, as the Raptors have shown, a good playoff run can draw in a wider audience that is and maybe even encourage some of those millennials to sit down for a couple of hours.
People have been doing just that for the World Series, with Sportsnet reporting an 8 per cent increase in audiences over last year with an average of 948,000. Because of the vagaries of the Canadian TV system – those who watch baseball on Fox aren't part of that number – that could mean anything.
It could mean people are intrigued by this battle of the lovable losers, or that they prefer Buck Martinez to John Smoltz. Or that they want to watch Canadian commercials.
No matter what it means, Sportsnet is in for a record audience Wednesday thanks to a Game 7.
Here are the most-watched sports events on English-language television from the past weekend, according to Numeris overnight ratings:
1. NHL, Maple Leafs at Canadiens, Saturday, CBC: 1,700,000
2. World Series, Indians at Cubs, Sunday, Sportsnet: 1,110,000 (Fox audience not measured)
3. NFL, Packers-Falcons/Seahawks-Saints, Sunday, CTV: 1,090,000
4. World Series, Indians at Cubs, Friday, Sportsnet: 957,000 (Fox audience not measured)
5. CFL, Lions at Roughriders, Saturday, TSN: 719,000
6. World Series, Indians at Cubs, Saturday, Sportsnet: 760,000 (Fox audience not measured)
7. NHL, Capitals at Canucks, Saturday, CBC: 633,000
8. CFL, Redblacks at Blue Bombers, Saturday, TSN: 591,000
9. Figure skating, Skate Canada men's free, Saturday, CTV: 523,000
10. NHL, Oilers at Canucks, Friday, Sportsnet One-360: 506,000
11. NFL, Redskins vs. Bengals, Sunday, TSN: 398,000
12. CFL, Eskimos at Tiger-Cats, Friday, TSN: 387,000
13. CFL, Stampeders at Alouettes, Sunday, TSN: 355,000
14. NBA, Cavaliers at Raptors, Friday, Sportsnet: 301,000
15. Figure skating, Skate Canada ladies, pairs free, Saturday, CTV: 299,000
15. Curling, Grand Slam Masters semifinals, Saturday, Sportsnet One-360: 299,000
17. Curling, Grand Slam Masters men's final, Sunday, CBC: 277,000
18. NFL, Eagles at Cowboys, Sunday, TSN: 250,000 (NBC audience not measured)
19. MLS, New York at Toronto FC, Sunday, TSN: 238,000
20. Curling, Grand Slam Masters women's final, Sunday, Sportsnet: 211,000
20. Curling, Grand Slam Masters men's quarterfinal, Saturday, CBC: 211,000
22. Curling, Grand Slam Masters women's quarterfinal, Saturday, Sportsnet: 210,000
23. NHL, Jets at Avalanche, Friday, TSN regional: 193,000
24. Auto racing, NASCAR Goody's 500, Sunday, TSN: 190,000
25. Figure skating, Skate America, Saturday, CBC: 143,000
26. Soccer, Liverpool at Crystal Palace, Saturday, Sportsnet: 129,000
27. NHL, Senators at Flames, Friday, TSN regional: 118,000
28. MLS, Red Bulls at Impact, Sunday, TSN: 112,000
28. Auto racing, F1 Mexican Grand Prix, Sunday, TSN: 112,000
30. NHL, Senators at Oilers, Sunday, TSN regional: 108,000
THREE TO WATCH
A whole bunch of football: The CFL closes out its regular season with a few question marks and a triple-header on Saturday. It's Montreal at Hamilton (1 p.m. ET), Toronto at Edmonton (4 p.m. ET) and Saskatchewan at B.C. (7 p.m.) All on TSN and all but the first game having playoff implications.
A whole bunch of hockey: After last year's Canada-free playoffs disaster, it's somewhat encouraging to see some Canadian teams at the top (keeping in mind that there's a lot of hockey left to be played. The unbeaten Montreal Canadiens host Philadelphia on Hockey Night In Canada (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, CBC) while the red-hot (finally) Edmonton Oilers take on the New York Islanders (7:30 p.m. ET, Sportsnet.)
A whole bunch of soccer: The MLS is throwing a quadruple-header of playoff games on Sunday, starting at 2 p.m. Key games for Canadians featured the Montreal Impact (4 p.m. ET, TSN5) and Toronto FC (6:30 p.m. ET, TSN4 and 5.)