Football

THE GAME SELLS ITSELF

In a tough sports market, the CFL is gaining ground

JAMES DEACON November 25 2002
Football

THE GAME SELLS ITSELF

In a tough sports market, the CFL is gaining ground

JAMES DEACON November 25 2002

THE GAME SELLS ITSELF

Football

In a tough sports market, the CFL is gaining ground

JAMES DEACON

NO EXAGGERATION. The 1996 Grey Cup in Hamilton was the most important Canadian Football League game ever. During the week leading up to the championship, deficitdogged team owners were poised to disband the old league because it was insolvent and its prospects for recovery were bleak. Salt in the wound, Hamilton was pounded by a game-day blizzard that made it look like a wellshaken snow globe. But then the game began, and the magic of three-down football took over. The Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts, despite the icy field, waged a spellbinding, high-scoring battle that wasn’t settled until the final seconds. By the time the Argos edged the Eskies 43-37, fans, sponsors and owners had been reminded what a loss it would be if the CFL weren’t around anymore. And the moribund league regained its pulse.

Which brings us to 2002. This week’s Grey Cup will no doubt attract its usual, massive TV audience, and it’s in Edmonton, the world’s best sports town, so the four-day party will be fun no matter how the game plays out. And while Commonwealth Stadium’s capacity can’t match the attendance of last year’s game in Montreal (65,255), it’s not far off (60,217).

But if you’re looking for a completely unscientific measurement of the league’s resurgence, try this: it doesn’t need to be saved by this week’s Cup. It’s doing just fine without it—as one league official said, the big game is “the cherry on the cheesecake” this season. Yes, it’s a bad sign that the owners can’t seem to find a commissioner to replace Mike Lysko, whom they fired before the season. Franchises in Vancouver, Hamilton and Toronto are shaky, and this season’s 3.4 per cent decline in per-game ticket sales from 2001 is a concern. But corporate sponsorship revenue is at an all-time high, a new Ottawa franchise was successfully launched, and TV ratings have exploded. “We’re not all the way to where we want to be yet,” says Brent Scrimshaw, CFL senior vice-president of marketing. “But there’s strong support for our brand of football across the

The game’s in Edmonton, the world’s best sports town, so the four-day party will be fun no matter what happens out on the field.

country, and we’re building on that.”

It’s the TV windfall that has CFLers thumping their chests. Audience numbers in most big-ticket pro sports have stalled or declined in recent years because there are now so many other channels from which to choose. So network marketing departments hold parades if ratings climb by a point or two. In the CFL, by contrast, audiences for the two Nov. 10 playoff games on CBC rose by 44 per cent over last year to an average of more than one million for each game. TSN’s ratings climbed by a startling 26 per cent this season, and overall by 118 per cent since 1997. So now, after decades of losing viewers to U.S. telecasts of National Football League games, the CFL is becoming the dominant football property on the tube.

TSN deserves much of the credit. Since buying the broadcast rights in 1997, the cable sports channel has transformed its Friday Night Football into its signature program. It has invested heavily in production and promotion, creating a package with better camera work, glitzier halftime-show sets and more recognizable on-air personalities. The key was focusing on the game because, back in 1997, that was about the only thing the CFL had going for it. “When we first did the deal, the league was in terrible shape,” says Phil King, TSN’s senior vice-president of programming. “But the facts speak for themselves: ratings on TSN have increased every year for five years, and no other sport can make that claim.”

There’s likely more to come. CBC may follow TSN’s lead and establish a regular Saturday night game next summer. “It helps to have a stable time-slot,” says Nancy Lee, executive director of CBC Sports, “because fans know when to tune in.” And Toronto, a city awash in entertainment options, appears to have rediscovered the game. Hogtowners rarely warmed to the Argos even when thrill-a-minute improvisers like Matt Dunigan and Doug Flutie were quarterbacking the double-blue. Yet by the end of this season, fans were rocking the SkyDome. Now cheering might not seem like much of an accomplishment in Regina or Montreal, but in buttoned-down Toronto, all that screaming and hollering was a revelation. Which only goes to prove, once again, the magic of three-down football. Hfl