The Great Canadian Ratings Report: CFL holds its own despite Jays onslaught

Labour Day games did well for the CFL but were hurt by competition from the Toronto Blue Jays.  (Larry MacDougal/CFL.)
Labour Day games did well for the CFL but were hurt by competition from the Toronto Blue Jays. (Larry MacDougal/CFL.)

The blue tornado hat has swept across Canada since the Toronto Blue Jays became contenders is buffeting the CFL, but the world's only all-Canadian football league appears to be weathering the storm.

Despite double-digit increases in Jays audiences this summer, the CFL has held its own in the television ratings war. After 11 weeks, CFL games are averaging 585,000 viewers on TSN -- down 12.7 per cent from last year -- and 206,000 on French-language RDS -- an increase of 18 per cent. Overall, the numbers are basically the same as last year -- a major accomplishment considering the fact that Jays audiences have more than doubled this summer and basically taken over sports TV.

``Generally, we feel really quite good where CFL numbers are right now," says TSN president Stewart Johnston. ``It's an amazing, resilient property when you consider what's gone on this summer and the competition all sports have been up against."

In the face of competition from the Jays, Pan Am Games and the women's World Cup, CFL audiences have held. And, as CFL communications director Paulo Senra points out, the CFL is the only league that has landed games in the top five every week since its season began. Not even the Jays can make that claim.

``It's a dedicated, loyal audience," said Johnston. ``It's a strong performer on all of our platforms, across all of your demographics."

Labour Day weekend, the supposed start of the ``real" CFL season, produced mixed results this year. Sunday's Winnipeg-Saskatchewan game averaged 1.1 million viewers -- on par with last season's game even though this one featured the two worst teams in the league.

The Edmonton-Calgary game did well with 757,000 viewers -- down 15 per cent from last year. Things didn't go so well in the East, and for that the Blue Jays must be blamed (or credited, depending on how you look at it.) The Hamilton-Toronto game, not exactly a thriller, averaged only 559,000 viewers -- 30 per cent below last year's Labour Day Classic.

It went head-to-head with the Jays, who despite being blown out by the Boston Red Sox, still averaged 1.1 million viewers.

Despite that blip, Johnston sees brighter days ahead.

``It's the Number 1 regular-season property in the West, ahead of the NHL," he said. ``Now that we've got a strong East as far as on-field performance ... that's been great to see in advance of what's going to happen next year with the Argos. That move to BMO Field will be a game-changer for the franchise and ultimately a huge boost for the league and our coverage of the league."

Johnston also sees a good future for TSN's new Thursday night package, which has averaged 543,000 viewers, about what the network expected.

But with more planning time, Johnston sees a wider variety of teams and time zones next season to produce  bigger ratings. This year, for example, six of the 10 Thursday nighters have involved the Montreal Alouettes and only one featured ratings driver Saskatchewan.

``We want Thursday to be that young night out at restaurants and bars or having friends over," he said. ``Fans have told us they want something with some consistency. We're very pleased so far."

If there is a negative, it's that TSN is now in the middle of what might be two consecutive ratings declines for the CFL. Last year, ratings dropped 6 per cent and they'll likely be down again this year -- especially if the Jays go to the World Series.

Numbers of note: Monday's FIBA Americas men's basketball game drew an average of 225,000 viewers -- triple what Canada's weekend games attracted. That bodes well for this week's games. ... While much has been written about the diminishing lure of Formula One racing, an average of 266,000 Canadians got up at dawn or slightly afterward to watch Sunday's Italian Grand Prix.

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

1. MLB, Orioles at Blue Jays, Sunday, Sportsnet: 1,700,000

2. MLB, Orioles at Blue Jays, Friday, Sportsnet: 1,400,000

3. MLB, Orioles at Blue Jays, Saturday, Sportsnet: 1,300,000

4. CFL, Blue Bombers at Roughriders, Sunday, TSN: 1,118,000

5. MLB, Blue Jays at Red Sox, Monday, Sportsnet: 1,100,000

6. CFL, Eskimos at Stampeders, Monday, TSN: 757,000

7. CFL, Argonauts at Tiger-Cats, Monday, TSN: 559,000

8. PGA, Deutsche Bank Championship final round, Monday, Global: 286,000

9. Auto racing, F1 Italian Grand Prix, Sunday, TSN: 266,000

10. Tennis, U.S. Open round of 16 (evening), Monday, TSN: 250,000

11. MLB, Rangers at Angels, Sunday, Sportsnet: 239,000

12. MLB, Pirates at Cardinals, Saturday, Sportsnet: 236,000

13. Basketball, FIBA Americas, Canada vs. Uruguay, Monday, TSN: 225,000

14. PGA, Deutsche Bank Championship second round, Saturday, Global: 198,000

15. Auto racing, NASCAR Southern 500, Sunday, TSN: 185,000 (NBC audience not measured)

16. Tennis, U.S. Open round of 16 (evening), Friday, TSN: 179,000

17. Tennis, U.S. Open round of 16 (afternoon), Friday, TSN: 174,000

18. Tennis, U.S. Open round of 16 (afternoon), Monday, TSN: 161,000

19. Tennis, U.S. Open round of 16 (evening), Saturday, TSN: 152,000

20. Auto racing, F1 Italian Grand Prix qualifying, Saturday, TSN: 146,000

21. Tennis, U.S. Open round of 16 (evening), Sunday, TSN: 139,000

22. Tennis, U.S. Open round of 16 (afternoon), Saturday, TSN: 137,000


Any given Sunday or Monday or Thursday ...: The nights have barely started to cool off, but that distinctive whiff of fall air and pigskins, deflated or otherwise, sailing through them has definitely arrived. The NFL literally kicks off its season Thursday with the New England Patriots and their recently unshackled quarterback Tom Brady hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers (Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC and TSN.)

Showdown in the Bronx: There will definitely be a playoff atmosphere in the air starting Thursday in New York when the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees get down to the nitty gritty in deciding which wins the AL East title. The fun starts at 7 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.

Showdown in Paradise: Summer must be over despite what the calendar says because the curling season kicks off (not literally) this weekend with the Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling inaugural Tour Challenge in Paradise, Newfoundland. Coverage starts Thursday (11 a.m. ET, Sportsnet).