The Great Canadian Ratings Report: Grey Cup audience down, but there are hopeful signs

·Chris Zelkovich
Quarterback Henry Burris of the Ottawa Redblacks hoists the Grey Cup Sunday in Toronto, which drew almost 4 million viewers. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Quarterback Henry Burris of the Ottawa Redblacks hoists the Grey Cup Sunday in Toronto, which drew almost 4 million viewers. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

How can it be?

How could one of the most exciting Grey Cup games in 104 years, a game that featured overtime and an upset of historic proportions, be watched by fewer people than the previous year? How could it draw the lowest Grey Cup ratings in 11 years?

But before you get all The-CFL-is-on-its-deathbed on us, let’s take a look at the possible reasons for a 10 per cent drop in audience from last year — as well as some hopeful signs for the future.

Even without getting philosophical, the raw numbers aren’t bad. According to Numeris overnight ratings, the game was watched by an average of 3.6 million viewers on TSN and another 254,000 on French-language RDS.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s more than any Stanley Cup playoff game has attracted since 2015 and is among the most-watched sports events of the year, around the same number that watched the Toronto Blue Jays beat Baltimore in the AL wild-card game. The Grey Cup made TSN the most-watched channel in the country on Sunday, outdrawing the likes of CTV, Global and CBC.

Factor in Bell Media’s disclosure to the CRTC on Tuesday that prime-time ratings overall are down 12 per cent and the game’s 10 per cent drop doesn’t look like anything telling for the CFL.

But it was not up to the usual Grey Cup standards and almost 2 million viewers less than the game’s high-water mark in 2012. While 2012 was special because of the game’s centennial and a year’s worth of promotion, that’s a substantial drop.

There are plenty of possible culprits here, so let’s consider the possibilities.

Poor pre-game hype: The fact is that most people expected a blowout, what with the Calgary Stampeders coming off a 15-2-1 season and a rout in the Western final. The Ottawa Redblacks, on the other hand, didn’t even put up a .500 record during the season. Anticipation of a blowout does not encourage people to tune in.

The Toronto factor: Most of the news coverage surrounding the game was negative, from poor ticket sales to low attendance at Grey Cup festival events. When the biggest headlines in the host city involve the CFL commissioner’s stand on concussions, excitement will be somewhat muted. That no doubt turned off a lot of people in the Toronto area and when that area comprises more than 6 million people, that’s a significant turnoff.

The TSN factor: The league’s broadcaster is facing a tough battle against Rogers and has experienced a decrease in audience over the last two years, thanks mainly to the NHL deal and the rise of the Toronto Blue Jays. A smaller overall audience means your Grey Cup promos aren’t as effective. It’s not a huge factor, but it may have contributed.

The Ottawa factor: A team that’s been in the league only three years hasn’t had the opportunity to build a following outside of the Ottawa Valley. Again, it’s not a huge issue, but it may have played a role.

Whatever the reason, a 10 per cent drop is hardly reason to panic and the closer you look at the numbers the more you see some positives.

For one, 10 million Canadians watched at least some part of the game, a 3 per cent increase over last year. That means three in 10 people were exposed to the CFL and, unless they tuned in during the far-too-frequent replay reviews, they saw some pretty exciting football. It’s not hard to believe that they may be back.

Among those viewers was a group of 18-to-34-year-olds, 15 per cent more than the number who saw last year’s Grey Cup. In addition to being the hardest demographic to reach, that group is the league’s future. And since the CFL television audience tends to skew a tad on the wrinkly side, this is a real positive that could lead to growth.

Add in the fact that live streaming on TSN digital offerings was up 35 per cent and assuming most of those viewers were not collecting pensions and you’ve got hope for the future.

An average of almost 2 million people watched the post-game coverage. Getting that many people to spend time watching athletes utter cliches and analysts blather on is no mean feat. It demonstrates a passionate interest in the game.

Though not the Grey Cup, the Vanier Cup also provided a spark of hope for the future of three-down football. Saturday’s game averaged 243,000 viewers on Sportsnet and Sportsnet 360, an amazing number considering that the game got little hype and that regular-season audiences were substantially lower. In fact, the semifinals the week before averaged 57,000 viewers.

So although the Grey Cup audience was less than expected, it’s not all negative.

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

  1. CFL, Grey Cup, Redblacks vs. Stampeders, Sunday, TSN: 3,625,800

  2. NHL, Caps-Leafs/Habs-Wings/Canes-Sens, CBC-Sportsnet-City: 1,600,000

  3. NFL, Pats-Jets/Seahawks-Bucs, Sunday, CTV: 881,000

  4. NFL, Early games, Sunday, CTV: 717,000

  5. NHL, Canucks at Avalanche, Saturday, CBC-Sportsnet: 676,000

  6. NHL, Coyotes at Oilers, Sunday, Sportsnet: 404,000

  7. Figure skating, NHK Trophy, Sunday, CBC: 255,000

  8. Vanier Cup, Laval vs. Calgary, Saturday, Sportsnet-360: 243,000

  9. NBA, Raptors at Bucks, Friday, Sportsnet One: 236,000

  10. Figure skating, NHK Trophy, Saturday, CBC: 203,000

  11. Auto racing, F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Sunday, TSN: 185,000

  12. Skiing, World Cup women’s slalom, Sunday, CBC: 181,000

  13. NHL, Canucks at Stars, Friday, Sportsnet Pacific: 167,000

  14. Skiing, World Cup women’s slalom, Saturday, CBC: 166,000

  15. Soccer, Sunderland at Liverpool, Saturday, Sportsnet: 158,000

  16. NHL, Predators at Jets, Sunday, TSN Regional: 158,000

  17. NFL, Chiefs at Broncos, Sunday, TSN2: 155,000 (NBC audience not measured)

  18. Snowboard, World Cup Big Air, Saturday, CBC: 147,000

  19. NHL, Flames at Bruins, Friday, Sportsnet West: 143,000

  20. NHL, Jets at Predators, Friday, TSN Regional: 137,000

  21. Football, Kentucky-Louisville/Michigan-Ohio St., Saturday, TSN: 125,000 (NBC audience not measured)

  22. NHL, Blackhawks at Ducks, Friday, Sportsnet: 121,000

  23. UFC, Whitaker vs. Brunson, Saturday, TSN: 112,000

  24. NHL, Oilers at Avalanche, Friday, Sportsnet West: 102,000


Kicks in the grass: No matter what damage the Stampeders and Redblacks did to the BMO Field turf on Sunday, Toronto FC figures the surface will still be more conducive to their success than the throw rug they played on during last week’s MLS Eastern Conference final in Montreal. But the visiting Impact are up a goal, so TFC’s work is cut out for them (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, TSN.)

New look: Sportsnet introduces a new player in its NHL coverage: Harnarayan Singh, who’s best known for his work on OMNI’s Punjabi-language hockey broadcasts. He’s work as the rinkside reporter for the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, Sportsnet), presumably in English.
Tiger’s tale: Normally the Hero World’s Challenge is one of those golf tournaments that features a lot of no-names, refugees from the tour and the occasional big name. But this year there’s something special about this one: Tiger Woods is making his return after more than a year on the sidelines and several years since he was contending for majors. It all starts Thursday (1:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel.)