55 Yard Line - CFL

Sunday's divisional semi-finals drew some incredible TV numbers. The Hamilton-Toronto game saw an average audience of 1.1 million and a peak of 2 million, which is quite solid. That paled in comparison to the Saskatchewan-B.C. game (pictured above), though, which reeled in an average audience of 2 million and a peak of 3.3 million for overtime. Those numbers made it by far the most-watched CFL divisional semi-final in history (ahead of a 1.4 million average audience for last year's Calgary - Edmonton game), and the two games combined for an average audience of 1.6 million, 13 per cent over last year's numbers. It's worth taking a look at some of the factors that may have played a role in the ratings to see why they're so good and what that means for the league.

1. Matchups: The most important figure in the CFL's ratings for any given game is who's playing, and Saskatchewan is the best news out there for broadcasters. The Roughriders were involved in TSN's three top-rated regular-season games this year and consistently draw a huge audience across their province. B.C.'s involvement wasn't bad either; the Lions' early struggles caused them to lose some traction locally, but their incredible stretch run and sneaky path into the playoffs caused them to become a focus of attention again. Moreover, the Lions and Riders put on an offence-oriented show, and that tends to draw in more viewers. By contrast, the Tiger-Cats-Argonauts game was all about defence and inept offence, and it wasn't a compelling show for neutrals for much of the game.

2. Parity: I've written about the benefits of parity from a league-wide perspective before, and they certainly include increased television ratings. There wasn't a clear favourite heading into the West semi-final; Saskatchewan had the better record on the year, but B.C. had been hotter down the stretch, and the two teams seemed reasonably even when you compared their various strengths and weaknesses. It also helps that both B.C. and Saskatchewan were seen by many as having a decent chance against Calgary this week; that provided extra motivation for Stampeders' fans to tune in to this to see who their team would face. By contrast, the Tiger-Cats were substantially favoured at home (even if the matchups were more even than many thought), and whichever team won that game was going to be a substantial underdog against Montreal in the East final, providing less motivation for Alouettes' fans to tune in and see who they were going to face.

3. Timing: The 4:30 p.m. Eastern time slot for the Western final Sunday is quite a strong one from my perspective. It's early enough out East that it fits into people's schedules (and can even be seen by those going out for dinner), but it's late enough out West that everyone's ready to watch it. Most people don't have a lot planned on Sunday afternoons, which is one of the reasons the NFL draws such mammoth television ratings each week. A 4:30 Eastern slot taps into Sunday afternoons from coast to coast, which is a big advantage. By contrast, the East semi-final was at 10 a.m. Pacific, which is a bit early for those on the West Coast who went out Saturday night (and is also during the religious services many people go to on Sunday mornings). That's not to say that it was scheduled at the wrong time; the double-header makes a lot of sense, and the East semi-final was well-designed for people out East. It's just that the time slot for the West game seems more likely to get a strong cross-country audience in my mind.

4. Competition and promotion: One key element of any program's ratings is what it's going up against. If popular shows go head-to-head, they'll probably each draw less of an audience than they would against weaker competition. The CFL got a tremendous break Sunday, particularly for the West semi-final; the late NFL games were Cowboys-Giants, Seahawks-Cardinals, 49ers-Rams and Chiefs-Broncos. Of those, only the 49ers - Rams game wound up being close, and it was the least-widely televised. The Seahawks - Cardinals game was predictably awful (which probably helped the CFL's ratings in B.C., as many people out here will watch Seattle if they're decent or involved in interesting games, but avoid them otherwise), the Chiefs got blown out by the Broncos and the Giants somehow found a way to lose to the Cowboys. None of that was terribly compelling, making the CFL action look even better by comparison. The early-game NFL slate was stronger (as usual), which may have contributed to lower ratings for the East semi-final. . It was also good planning to have the West final early enough that it didn't run into the NFL's Sunday Night Football despite going to double overtime; even if TSN wasn't also broadcasting that game, plenty of people might have flipped to it, as the Steelers-Patriots matchup was highly anticipated.

It's also important to note the value of promotion, and this is one of the huge benefits the CFL has received from being exclusively on TSN. In the old TSN/CBC split, there wasn't as much reason for TSN to really focus on building the league's audience, and CBC wasn't able to cross-promote CFL broadcasts as effectively thanks to their primarily non-sports content. TSN's all-sports format gives them a tremendous amount of opportunities to promote their CFL broadcasts, and they do so quite a lot, with everything from short commercials setting up the games to highlights and previews on the nightly SportsCentre shows to featuring CFL guests on programs like Off The Record. It also helps that they've focused on trying to catch a football audience; I've often noticed CFL promotions during their broadcasts of the NFL's Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football games, and that makes a lot of sense. It used to be that the CFL/NFL audience was more sharply divided, but I think we're seeing more and more people these days who are fans of football in general. Those promotions are key to getting them to tune into the CFL.

5. Portable People Meters: These rating-measurement systems were rolled out in Canada last year, and they've significantly boosted sports ratings across the board. They tend to do a better job of capturing sports audiences than the old system, as they reflect some of the people watching in bars or at friends' houses in a way the old system overlooked. It's not a coincidence that the previous semi-final ratings record came last year after the introduction of this system. The comparison of this year to last year still shows a huge jump even with both under the new system, and that's significant, but it's worth noting that CFL ratings before last year were probably understated.

As a final note, it's interesting that both semi-final games didn't sell out. Mark Masters of The National Post had a good piece looking at both the low attendance numbers and the high television ratings earlier this week, and he got at some further reasons why people might elect to watch at home rather than go in person. The game experience of watching on television is better than ever these days thanks to high-definition broadcasts and advanced TVs, the seats are more comfortable, and the food and drink is certainly cheaper. You also get a better view of the entire field, solid replays and commentary from the announcers, and you're in a warmer environment than your average stadium. This suggests that the CFL might have to go further in looking at ways to enhance the game-day experience, and that's a subject that deserves a more detailed look of its own down the road. However, as CFL chief operating officer Michael Copeland told Masters, the overall picture is pretty positive:

"If we're not getting the fans to the stadium we're at least getting them via television."

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