Ratings claims highlight heated battle involving Canada's sports networks

Ron MacLean, George Stroumboulopoulos and Don Cherry are unveiled as the new 'dream team' of broadcasts who will anchor HNL national coverage across all Rogers properties, including Hockey Night in Canada. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Which of Canada's sports television networks is the most-watched in the country? Well, it all depends on who you ask.

In the latest exchange of small-arms fire between Bell-owned TSN and Rogers-owned Sportsnet, both are laying claim to the title.

The skirmish started Tuesday morning when Rogers put out a press release declaring itself as ``the #1 Sports Brand on TV in Canada." In it, Sportsnet president Scott Moore said that for the first time in the channel's 17-year history it had surpassed TSN in total audience.

``We're pretty proud," Moore told Yahoo! Sports. ``I said this was what we wanted to do when I got here in September of 2010 and five years later, we're there."

According to Rogers' calculations, Sportsnet was now averaging 167,000 viewers per minute, 9,000 more than perennial leader TSN. Sportsnet also said that it had overtaken TSN on all key demographics.

But not so fast.

Within minutes of Sportsnet's release hitting the wires and Internet, Bell issued a release stating ``TSN once again ranks as Canada’s #1 specialty channel in all key demos."

According to its calculations, TSN was averaging 140,000 viewers while Sportsnet was well behind with 112,000. Both cited ratings collector Numeris as the source.

So what gives?

Well, it all depends on how you compile the numbers and TSN is calling foul on this one. Phil King, president of CTV, sports, and entertainment programming for Bell Media, says Sportsnet compiled ratings from six channels and compared them to five of TSN's.

Comparing ``our four feeds versus their four regional feeds, we beat them handily," he told Yahoo. ``Even in you add in Sportsnet One and TSN2, we're still ahead. The only way they can declare this is by putting in a sports news channel (Sportsnet 360) to somehow squeak by us. That's the hollowest victory of all."

Moore defended Sportsnet's decision to include all channels.

``Our numbers compare all viewers to Sportsnet versus all viewers to TSN," he said.  ``That's how I would measure the health of the network brands. It's also worth noting that all of our networks are up year over year. You would have to ask them if there is growth on theirs."


King denied the Bell release was a return of fire against Rogers, saying that it had actually been done in response to claims that rival Shaw had made recently.

As for claims that Sportsnet is Canada's top sports TV brand, King called that ``silly."

``It's a self-declared award," he said. ``I don't know what that means. It's certainly not quality, it's certainly not viewership, it's certainly not journalism. If I knew what the criteria was, i might have a comment. Radio, online, mobile, we beat them. I find it a little bit silly."

So who's telling the truth? Well, both of them are even if there's some mixing of apples and oranges with a few mangoes thrown in.

Head to head, including the same number of channels (Sportsnet One and TSN2 as well), TSN is still in first place: 160,000 average to 133,000. Throw in Sportsnet 360 and Sportsnet takes the lead.

Outside of the sport of watching these media giants duke it out, there are some pretty big stakes here. Being Number 1 means a lot.

If Sportsnet can continue to hold the lead, it will mean big things for the Rogers channel. In addition to being able to market itself as Canada's most-watched specialty channel, it will allow Sportsnet to raise ad rates. Packaging Sportsnet in tandem with the Rogers-owned NHL broadcasts on Hockey  Night in Canada could also produce higher ad revenue.

``Being Number 1 is more than just bragging rights," Moore said. ``We should now be the first call for all advertisers. If you want to reach sports fans, we're the ones to get you there."

And since TSN has benefitted from the highest cable rates in the country, Rogers will now argue that Sportsnet deserves a raise from distributors if it is now Number 1. That potentially could be worth millions to Rogers' bottom line.

``Historically, we haven't been in the same league as TSN," Moore said. ``But now as we renegotiate deals with cable carriers we can argue that we should at least be on par with them."

Sportsnet's lead extends to key demographics, outdrawing TSN among its target 25-54 age group as well as the much-coveted 18-34s. Advertisers are keen to appeal to the younger age group and the fact Sportsnet rates 23 per cent higher than TSN in that category should make the Rogers channel attractive to them.

The NHL playoffs, which featured five Canadian teams, fuelled a record April for Sportsnet and boosted its audience share that month to 5.8 per cent. TSN's was 3.1 in comparison.

King doesn't dispute the fact that Rogers is in a good position to overtake TSN one day. He has said numerous times that with the pricey NHL package and the Toronto Blue Jays, Sportsnet could dominate if all things line up for them: several Canadian teams making the playoffs and the Jays contending.

But he also says that hasn't happened yet. And both sides agree that TSN could easily topple Sportsnet this summer, regardless of how ratings are calculated.

Once the CFL season starts, things could swing back in TSN's favour, especially if the Blue Jays continue to falter. A strong FIFA Women's World Cup should also boost TSN's fortunes in June and July.

But once the NHL gets rolling again next fall, things could swing back in Sportsnet's favour.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. The two companies are bitter rivals -- witness the boardroom wrangling that went on recently over MLSE's purchase of the Toronto Argonauts.

Stay tuned.