CFL may move playoff games to Saturday this season

The CFL and its broadcast partner TSN are in discussions to move the divisional semi-final and final playoff games to Saturday as early as this season commissioner Randy Ambrosie said Sunday.

The Grey Cup would not be affected.

The league is considering the move after a 2018 season that saw dramatic decreases in the TV numbers for the post-season. Ratings for the CFL East and West Division championships last November were down a combined 30 per cent, including a drop of almost 50 per cent for the East game between the Ottawa Redblacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Ratings for the semi-finals were down almost six per cent from 2017.

“We shared with our Board of Governors on Friday, TSN has offered to move to a Saturday strategy as early as this season,” Ambrosie told a crowd in Regina as part of his cross-country “Randy’s road trip tour.”

By moving the playoff games to Saturday, the CFL would avoid going head-to-head with the NFL, which saw dramatic ratings increases in Canada last season.  Ratings for conference championship games jumped more than 22 per cent over 2017 and the Super Bowl was up 18 per cent, despite a drop in U.S. numbers.

The league has already dramatically reduced its slate of Sunday regular-season games  The Canadian league played just four of 81 regular-season games on Sunday last season and six in 2017. There are just two on the schedule in 2019.

Saturday was the most-watched day of the week last season, something that Riders CEO Craig Reynolds says lines up with the trends in Saskatchewan.

“For us, it’s our favourite day,” Reynolds said. “It seems to work for the majority of the province and the results show that obviously there is the competition with the NFL, you are competing for eyeballs. So TSN is potentially interested in having that conversation as well.”

Reynolds says discussions on the change took place at the league meetings in Quebec in January.

By playing one day earlier, the CFL would avoid the NFL and, if they kept the games in the afternoon, dodge ratings juggernaut Hockey Night in Canada as well. Its primary competition would likely come from afternoon NHL games, the NBA, some U.S. college football and possibly USports Bowl games.

The CFL playoff format has evolved over the years, including the use of a two-game total-point format and a best of three series. The league played the division semi-finals and finals on different days – one Saturday, one Sunday – for several years in the 1970s.

Ambrosie took a straw poll at the event in Regina, asking people to raise their hands in support for Saturday playoff games as well as a Saturday Grey Cup. While the first idea had popular support, fans wanted the championship game to remain on Sunday.

Viewership for the CFL’s championship game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Ottawa Redblacks was just 3.1 million on TSN last November – a decline of over 23 per cent from the 2017 game. It was the lowest-rated game since 2001 (2.7 million) and the worst showing for TSN since they took over the broadcast rights 11 years ago.

The poor showing meant that TSN saw a slight ratings decrease for 2018 – despite a regular season that saw a modest increase. Overall, ratings declined 0.3 per cent for the 81-game season, including playoffs.

Ambrosie joked that the league is considering the move as a favour to the NFL.

“I always feel bad for the NFL that we take all their thunder away when we play are playoff games on Sunday. So just to be a good friend I think we should consider moving them to Saturdays because we’re like that, we’re Canadians after all,” he said.

“Playoff games on Saturdays – the semifinals and finals – we are definitely looking at with TSN for this season to put that into place.”

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