Opinion: first year of summer Sunday scheduling a success for CFL

Photo: Neil Noonan/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The CFL changed up its scheduling for the 2023 season and it paid immediate dividends as the league’s summer television ratings increased.

In the past, the CFL has generally played one game on Thursday and Friday nights during the summer months followed by a double-header on Saturday. The league altered its approach this year as they played one game per day from Thursday through Sunday for most of the summer, presumably with the hope of increasing viewership on television. If that was the goal, the initiative was a success.

TSN’s English language television broadcasts averaged viewership of 505,900 over the first thirteen weeks of the season, a period that ended on Labour Day weekend. The eleven Sunday broadcasts included in that timespan averaged audiences of 541,800, beating the numbers from Thursdays (465,000), Fridays (506,400), and Saturdays (496,500).

This sample size includes the Labour Day Classic between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders, which generated the highest single-game rating so far this season at 975,000. Even with this game taken out of the equation, the CFL still averaged viewership of 498,500 on Sundays this season, beating out Thursdays and Saturdays.

The NFL has programmed football fans across North America to tune in every Sunday and the CFL was wise to take advantage of this learned behaviour. The league was also smart to continue avoiding direct competition with the NFL in its scheduling.

As in past years, the CFL recently discontinued its Thursday and Sunday games, moving instead to doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday nights. This allows the league to play all four of its weekly games in the two-day window between the NFL’s Thursday night game and its full slate of contests on Sunday.

The CFL even expanded upon its efforts to avoid competing with the NFL in 2023 as they’ve moved their playoff games to Saturday. The exception is the Grey Cup, which remains scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 19 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

There wasn’t a lot of data for the CFL to utilize before making Sunday games a regular part of their summer schedule. The league played only four Sunday regular season games over the past two years, drawing an average English language television audience just shy of 750,000. However, this number was heavily skewed by including two Labour Day Classics between Winnipeg and Saskatchewan, which often generates the highest regular season television rating of the year.

The league took a risk and it paid off. Local attendance doesn’t seem to have been positively or negatively affected by the change, which some have called friendly for campers and cottage-goers. While not everyone likes attending a football game the night before the work week begins, Sunday games make it possible for those who spend the weekends at campgrounds and cottages to attend.

Friday Night Football has become a successful brand for TSN since it launched in 1997, while Thursday Night Football has been met with a more tepid response since its debut in 2015. Sunday nights, though not officially branded as Sunday Night Football, appear to have found their niche in just one season for the CFL.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.