COX: Grey Cup ratings nosedive isn’t CFL’s biggest problem

Damien Cox, Toronto Star

Normally, the week after the Grey Cup is filled with the Canadian Football League crowing about big television ratings for its championship game, usually offered as evidence that any suggestions of the league’s demise are, as usual, premature.

Well, you may have noticed things have been a little quieter on that front this week, and with good reason. The Grey Cup contest in Edmonton between the Calgary Stampeders and Ottawa Redblacks took an unprecedented hammering from the Canadian sports public, losing about one million viewers compared with last year’s game, a 23-per-cent fall-off.

Now, three million viewers or so is still a big number for any Canadian sports broadcast. But when you consider that the ratings number for the Grey Cup nine years ago was essentially double that figure, the surprising decline this year comes into sharper focus.

In the bigger picture, it certainly makes you wonder if this is a new harbinger of hard times ahead for the CFL and its member clubs, the latest indication of a country and sports culture that has slowly but surely been losing interest in three-down football.

Some would argue the matchup last Sunday was to blame, particularly with Ottawa being the worst TV market in the country for the CFL. The game itself wasn’t compelling, and the playoffs in general really struggled in terms of attracting viewership. That said, ratings on TSN were up during the regular season.

Television numbers, of course, are like balance sheets. You can torque them to mean whatever you want them to mean. Drew Edwards, editor of the popular 3DownNation website, said the Grey Cup ratings might be the least of the league’s concerns at the moment.

“It’s just one year,” said Edwards. “If we’re talking about the same numbers next year, well, that’s a different thing.”

On the field, the league continues to face challenges with player safety, officiating and overall quality. If Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell heads to the NFL, one of the few recognizable stars will be lost. In terms of competition for talent, there’s not one but two new leagues starting up south of the border in the next 18 months. The XFL is returning, and a new pro spring league called the Alliance of American Football will begin play next year with a commitment to a minimum salary of $75,000, about 30 per cent more than the CFL.

Off the field, television aside, the challenges are complex and the main question remains: How can the CFL grow?

There’s limited interest in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, the country’s three largest cities. None of those teams draw 23,000 per game on average. In Montreal, they’re actually shrinking the capacity of the Alouettes’ stadium next season, to 20,025 from an already tiny 23,430. The days of an Als ticket being tougher to get than a Habs ticket are long gone.

The first major off-season obstacle, meanwhile, is a new collective agreement, with the current one set to expire on the first day of training camp next year.

“To the CFL, to the CFLPA, get the damn thing signed and let’s have a league next year,” said Mitchell upon accepting his outstanding player award in Edmonton last week.

An increase in the aforementioned minimum wage, now set at $54,000, will be a big issue, along with major improvements in basic health coverage for CFL players. The league also continues to deny any connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and football.

“The league has created a divide between themselves and the players,” said Sportsnet reporter Arash Madani. “Running away from problems isn’t going to solve them. The viewers may have vanished, but the problems haven’t.”

The Halifax-based Atlantic Schooners now have a conditional expansion franchise, although that still seems more fanciful than reality-based. About 6,000 season tickets have been sold, but there’s no commitment of public money for a proposed $200-million, 24,000-seat stadium that needs to be built. It won’t get easier with the recent news that Manitoba taxpayers may unexpectedly be on the hook for $100 million for the building of Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field.

As part of what’s being called a “CFL 2.0” vision, meanwhile, the league has signed a letter of intent with Mexico’s Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional for a variety of projects, including possibly holding games in that country. That league begins its fourth season next spring, and there are proposals that would place Mexican players on CFL squads, another thing that would require the agreement of the players’ union.

This is all ambitious stuff. Ambrosie has been an aggressive commish so far, particularly when it came to changing league rules on hitting during practices last year. He also added an extra official part way through this year’s playoffs, assigned to watch for late hits on quarterbacks.

But those are football items. The corporate side — dealing with other leagues, expansion, collective bargaining — are major business challenges, and owners are going to want to see progress. Selling the CFL after the country responded with those ratings for the annual Grey Cup showcase makes it a little tougher.

None of this is particularly new for the CFL. We’ve had different commissioners — eight this century — and lots of problems over the years and the league lives on, seemingly profitable as a whole.

But the television ratings were always reliable for the Grey Cup game, so the abrupt decline this season has to be alarming, particularly since the CFL has become a TV-driven league more than ever. Total attendance for the entire league is now around two million per season. Nobody’s averaging 59,000 fans a game like they did in Montreal back in ’77 or ever will again.

Tumbling TV ratings for the Grey Cup just weren’t something the league needed right now on top of these other issues. It’s almost like fans see an iceberg ahead and are nervously eyeing the lifeboats.

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