There was a time when the Toronto Raptors were among the bottom feeders of the Canadian sports television world. They attracted few viewers -- often well under 100,000 -- and found themselves wandering the sports wilderness on channels most Canadians couldn't find with a GPS.
Their popularity was more comparable to World's Strongest Man than World Cup.
It's not hard to remember that time, mainly because it was only a year ago.
But the Raptors' tag as televison afterthoughts is no longer valid. Things are definitely looking up, thanks to a great finish last season and an even better start this fall.
The increase in audiences is impressive. TSN's average for Raptors games is 346,000 -- up 137 per cent over last year. On TSN2, the team is averaging 180,000 -- more than triple last year's number.
The same story is unfolding on Sportsnet's various channels. The only game that has aired on the main channel did 229,800 -- way ahead of last year's average of 161,000. On Sportsnet One, games are up 97 per cent. The four games that have aired on Sportsnet 360 have averaged 191,000 -- an impressive number by that channel's and the Raptors' standards.
Despite those increases, the Raptors are not quite in the big leagues. After all, you don't get double and triple-digit increases unless things were pretty bad to start with. That 346,000 average on TSN is dwarfed by Hockey Night In Canada. The CFL averages almost twice that Raptors high-water mark and the Toronto Blue Jays aren't far behind.
The list goes on.
This week's big showdown with LeBron James averaged 394,000 viewers, which was impressive by Raptors standards. But that was still behind women's curling, and there's really nothing surprising about that.
But the team has to be happy with the direction ratings are heading. Barring a collapse of Leafian proportions, audiences should only grow as the playoffs get closer.
The reasons behind the increases aren't hard to understand. For one, the team is a winner and nothing excites fans more than a team with promise. For another, the Raptors are a pretty exciting bunch with a flair for the dramatic that produces some thrilling finishes.
The surprising thing about the increased popularity is that it isn't driven by a superstar, the way Vince Carter propelled ratings way back when. But a winner is always attractive, regardless of how it wins.
Speaking of curling, the Canada Cup event produced the usual solid ratings, with a couple of surprises. The biggest one was that the women's final and semifinal both did substantially better than any of the men's competitions. Maybe curling is becoming what tennis was a few years ago, with the women providing better stories and matches than the men. Or maybe it was just one of those things.
Here are the most-watched English-language sports events for the past weekend, according to Numeris overnight ratings:
1. NHL, Rangers-Wings/Canucks-Leafs/Habs-Stars/Hawks-Preds, Saturday, CBC-Rogers: 2,050,000
2. NFL, Seahawks-Eagles/Bills-Broncos, Sunday, CTV: 922,000
3. NHL, Canucks at Senators, Sunday, City: 726,000
4. NHL, Sharks at Flames, Saturday, CBC: 657,000
5. NFL, Colts-Browns/Steelers-Bengals/Ravens-Dolphins, Sunday, CTV: 614,000
6. NFL, Patriots at Chargers, Sunday, TSN: 488,000 (NBC viewers not measured)
7. NHL, Hockey Night in Canada pre-game, Saturday, CBC-Rogers: 450,000
8. Curling, Canada Cup women's final, Sunday, TSN: 435,000
9. Curling, Canada Cup women's semifinal, Saturday, TSN: 430,000
10. NBA, Cavaliers at Raptors, Friday, TSN: 394,000
11. Curling, Canada Cup men's semifinal, Saturday, TSN: 381,000
12. Curling, Canada Cup Draw 8, Friday, TSN: 282,000
13. Curling, Canada Cup Draw 7, Friday, TSN: 245,000
14. Curling, Canada Cup men's final, Sunday, TSN: 236,000
15. Curling, Canada Cup Draw 9, Friday, TSN: 226,000
16. NHL, Sharks at Oilers, Sunday, Sportsnet West: 217,000
17. NHL, Hometown Hockey pre-game, Sunday, City: 203,000
18. NHL, Canadiens at Blackhawks, Friday, Sportsnet East: 194,000
19. NHL, Flyers at Kings, Saturday, Sportsnet: 173,000
20. Skiing, World Cup women's downhill, Saturday, CBC: 113,000
21. Mixed martial arts, UFC preliminaries, Saturday, Sportsnet 360: 111,000
22. Soccer, Arsenal at Stoke City, Saturday, TSN: 109,000
23. Soccer, Everton at Manchester City, Saturday, TSN: 108,000
24. Skiing, World Cup women's super-G, Sunday, CBC: 95,000
25. Skiing, World Cup men's super-G, Saturday, CBC: 89,000
THREE TO WATCH
Sweep smell of success: There are so many big curling events these days, it's getting hard to keep track of them. A week after the Canada Cup started, the top 32 men's and women's teams are back at it again with the third leg of the Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling event. Coverage starts Thursday at noon ET (Sportsnet) and continues through Sunday, with Sportsnet and CBC providing the TV.
Original showdown, Parts 1 and 2: If you're a fan of those Original Six matchups, the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs have a treat for you this week. The two old rivals meet Wednesday in Detroit (8 p.m. ET, Sportsnet) and again on Saturday in Toronto (7 p.m. ET, CBC.) The only thing missing is Gordie Howe facing off against George Armstrong.
Really, really, really big game: If you listen to the talking heads, every NFL game has huge playoff implications -- including the pre-season ones. But there's no exaggerating this week with several match-ups determining who gets into the playoffs and who starts looking for a new head coach. The best might come Sunday night when the Dallas Cowboys meet the Philadelphia Eagles, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC and TSN.)