The Great Canadian Ratings Report: NFL-CFL argument still a toss-up

The Manning-Brady showdown drew a huge audience on Sunday. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
The Manning-Brady showdown drew a huge audience on Sunday. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

There are many areas into which wise Canadians tread lightly for fear of either ending up as the main target in a line brawl or becoming the subject of a Royal Commission.

Among those verboten topics are the role of fighting in hockey, taxes and whether or not Canadians prefer the CFL or NFL. We'll deal solely with the latter today, keeping in mind that torches are being lit and pitchforks are being sharpened as these words are being typed.

The big news is that NFL television ratings have been quite strong in recent weeks while CFL audiences have been dropping. The big indicator of this is the 28 per cent growth in audiences for the 4 p.m. NFL Sunday games. That growth seemed even greater last weekend when the much-hyped Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown topped the 1 million mark while the best audience the CFL could produce was barely half that.

But before anybody jumps to any conclusions about the CFL heading to the scrap heap or the way being paved for an NFL team in Canada, let's look at the big picture.

Overall, the NFL is drawing basically slightly more than what it drew last season while the CFL is down  a few percentage points. The main reason for the bump in NFL numbers is the late Sunday afternoon game, which has featured some great matchups and great entertainment. But playing a significant role in that increase is the fact that those games are now on CTV, which has substantially greater drawing power than City, where games aired last year.

But if you're thinking this is simply the advance guard in the NFL takeover of Canadian eyeballs, look at Monday Night Football. The most recent game, a relatively attractive showdown between Indianapolis and the New York Giants, averaged but 334,000 viewers on TSN. That's way below any CFL audience this season and not out of sync with other Monday night games.

As for the CFL, ratings were up during the summer, but have cooled off at a time when they're usually ramping up. There is, of course, no one reason. But here are a few:

1) This has been the dullest CFL year in memory, with historically low scoring and little of the last-second lead changes that have become the league's trademark.

2) A start that saw no team in the East anywhere near .500 killed a lot of interest in the east.

3) The Toronto Argonauts have done little to attract fans in the country's most populated region.

4) While expansion may have brought in new viewers in Ottawa, it definitely watered down the product.

The good news for the CFL is that none of these factors is unfixable, though unless the Argos find a new home that may not be true in their case.

Who's hot: Sportsnet was the beneficiary of the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals pushing the World Series to a seventh game, with the finale drawing an average of 1.25 million viewers -- a record for Sportsnet's baseball coverage. That pushed the channel's World Series average to 634,000 -- a 6 per cent increase over last season.

Who's lukewarm: The ratings picture looks a little brighter for the Toronto Raptors, though the team's peripatetic broadcast schedule will once again keep ratings down. The Raptors opened the season in great fashion, luring an average audience of 320,000 viewers to TSN last Wednesday. But then its games moved to Sportsnet 360 and TSN2 and the numbers dropped like a stone: 149,000 on Saturday and 133,000 on Sunday.

Until the team can get all of its games on TSN and Sportsnet, this will likely be the pattern again.

Who's not as hot as they expected to be: Hockey, as has been the case since dinosaurs roamed Canada, dominated the ratings. But audiences are still trailing last season, off 9 per cent in the first three weeks of the new Rogers reign. On its own, that's not a big concern since the season is still young and since there are so many more games being broadcast. More choice doesn't necessarily mean higher ratings.

But one area that has to be disappointing is the new Sunday package. So far, ratings are underwhelming both for the games and the much-touted pre-game show. They should improve once the football season is over, but the battle to persuade Canadians to make Sunday another hockey night in Canada will take some time.

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

1. NHL, Hawks-Leafs/Sens-Bruins/Jets-Rangers/Caps-Lightning/Sabres-Pens, Saturday, CBC/Rogers: 2,100,000

2. NHL, Canucks at Oilers, Saturday, CBC: 1,100,000

3. NFL, Broncos-Pats/Raiders-Seahawks, Sunday, CTV: 1,054,000

4. NHL, Leafs at Blue Jackets, Friday, Sportsnet Ontario: 737,000

5. NHL, Hockey Night In Canada pre-game, Saturday, CBC: 638,000

6. NHL, Flames at Canadiens, Sunday, City: 595,000

7. CFL, Blue Bombers at Stampeders, Saturday, TSN: 584,000

8. CFL, Lions at Eskimos, Saturday, TSN: 553,000

9. NFL, Cards-Cowboys/Skins-Vikes/Chargers-Dolphins, Sunday, CTV: 532,000

10. NFL, Ravens at Steelers, Sunday, TSN: 531,000 (NBC audience not measured)

11. Figure skating, Skate Canada ice dance, Saturday, CTV: 497,000

12. CFL, Ticats at RedBlacks, Friday, TSN: 495,000

13. Auto racing, NASCAR Texas 500, Sunday, TSN: 476,000

14. CFL, Argos at Alouettes, Sunday, TSN: 463,000

15. Curling, Masters men's final, Sunday, Sportsnet: 308,000

16. Curling, Masters women's quarters, Saturday, Sportsnet: 307,000

17. Curling, Masters women's final, Sunday, Sportsnet: 264,000

17. Soccer, Manchester United at Manchester City, Sunday, TSN: 264,000

19. NHL, Hometown Hockey pre-game show, Sunday, City: 224,000

20. Figure skating, Skate Canada pairs free, Saturday, CTV: 192,000

21. Figure skating, Skate America, Saturday, CBC: 166,000

22. Curling, Masters round robin, Friday, Sportsnet: 158,000

23. Figure skating, Skate Canada ladies free, Saturday, TSN: 152,000

24. NBA, Raptors at Magic, Saturday, Sportsnet 360: 149,000

24. Curling, Masters men's quarters, Saturday, Sportsnet: 149,000

26. NHL, Kings at Red Wings, Friday, Sportsnet East & Pacific: 147,000

27. Auto racing, F1 U.S. Grand Prix, Sunday, TSN: 138,000 (NBC viewers not measured)

28. Curling, Masters morning round robin, Friday, Sportsnet: 135,000

29. NBA, Raptors at Heat, Sunday, TSN2: 133,000

30. Soccer, Queen's Park at Chelsea, Saturday, Sportsnet: 129,000


Eastern promises: The CFL East has pretty much been a turtle derby this season, though thanks to a strong finish by the Montreal Alouettes at least one team will end the year with a .500 record. Despite the division's mediocrity, there's still some meaningful football left and Saturday's game between the Als and Ticats in Hamilton has all kinds of implications -- besides the possibility of the stadium actually being finished this year. Among other things, the game could dictate which team eventually goes to the Grey Cup game. Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, TSN.

Oh, Canada: This is the kind of night Rogers was dreaming of when it emptied its wallet to corner the market on NHL games. Six Canadian teams will be in action on Saturday, with Canadian content starting in the afternoon and running through midnight. The only team not playing is Edmonton, though it could be argued that's the case most nights. It all starts with Calgary in Florida, 3 p.m. ET, Sportsnet West.

Net gains: Revenge will be the story line when Milos Raonic and Roger Federer square off in the ATP World Tour finals on Sunday, though the guy seeking revenge (Federer) is usually the target of any vengeful thoughts. But after losing to Raonic last week, Federer will be even more focused that usual. Sunday, 3 p.m., Sportsnet One.