Written by: Dan Gladman
Having completed its 65th regular season over the weekend, the Canadian Football League begins its postseason campaign Saturday with conference semi-finals in Montreal and Vancouver. Maybe not coincidentally, these two major Canadian markets, along with Toronto, have shown growth this year in interest and business. Home playoff dates for the Montreal Alouettes and BC Lions are sure to continue this trend, as the league has shown a complete recovery from the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
League commissioner Randy Ambrosie told the Canadian Press that “it wasn’t all that long ago the three major markets would’ve been a real concern. Now we’re seeing real momentum in those markets.”
Attendance figures back up his claim. The Lions home average for the 2023 season was 23,208 fans per game, an increase of over 2,800 from last year, putting their percentage of capacity at almost 77%. The audience is lower in Toronto, with an average of 14,310. This is the worst attendance in the league but the good news for the defending Grey Cup champion Argonauts – the odds-on favourite to repeat – is the increase in bums in seats. 2,400 additional fans per game attended this year. Still, the Argos only fill 57% of their capacity at BMO Field.
Overall league average attendance was 22,393, filling 71.44% of available seats at games.
It’s on television where the CFL has shown intriguing growth. The league started the year with a new TV partner in the USA. According to SportingNews.com, CBS Sports Network pays $1 million per year to broadcast 34 games, including the playoffs and Grey Cup. That’s around $100,000 per team.
“The CFL is an exciting brand of football, with a great history that has long included some of the stars of the game,” said Dan Weinberg, Executive Vice President, Programming at CBS Sports.
CP reports that the league’s broadcast deal with TSN and RDS – reportedly worth $50 million annually – runs through the 2026 season. This is between 20-25% of the league’s gross revenue. 3DownNation.com reports that gross revenue is believed to be between $200-240 million a year.
Does TSN’s investment in the league pay off? Ratings this year indicate it does, with impressive momentum built heading into the Playoffs. All three games played on the weekend of October 20-21 topped 500,000 viewers. The 25-54 age demographic was represented nicely with an average of over 150,000.
In a mid-season report the league stated that league-wide ratings among 25-54 year-olds have increased by 29% year-over year.
The TV audience for the CFL is neither large nor small but it is consistent.
Perhaps the most consistent fan base in the country can be found in Winnipeg. The winners of the Grey Cup in 2019 and 2021 (No Grey Cup game was played in 2020), the Blue Bombers lost 24-23 in the 2022 edition. They are expected to return to the Final to be played November 19 in Hamilton. Their fans have rewarded them.
Sport Business Journal reported that revenue in 2022 came in at $45.4 million, with an operating profit of $4.9M. They registered the highest attendance in the league in 2023 averaging over 30,000 per game, an increase of 1,800, and regularly provide TV ratings for TSN that are above the 500,000 viewers threshold. With another Grey Cup in mind, and a home date locked in for the Western Final on November 11, Winnipeg should surpass its impressive financials from last year.
The Toronto-Winnipeg Grey Cup played November 20, 2022 was the 8th-highest rated TV show of the calendar year, reaching 3.35 million Canadians on TSN. The Super Bowl was number one, the Academy Awards finished below the Grey Cup in 9th.
A Toronto-Winnipeg rematch this year could up the attendance and might be the most competitive game possible, especially considering last year’s one-point differential, decided in the dying seconds on a blocked field goal.
But a Toronto-BC Grey Cup matchup hasn’t been seen since 2004, and surely a matchup between two of the country’s three most populous areas would increase interest throughout the nation. Throw in a Green Day performance at Halftime and it wouldn’t be illogical for TSN to anticipate viewership to climb to the four million mark.
The cost of an advertisement on TSN during the Grey Cup is not published but it presumably helps turn the sports channel’s meaty rights and productions costs into profit.
The CFL and its nine teams have a history to be proud of and a business that shows promise. Ticket sales hovered slightly over last year’s averages. Television ratings remained consistent. The country’s three biggest markets have shown signs of rising interest. Corporate sponsorship is there. Additional marketing of star players should be the next piece in elevating the business.In the meantime there are five more playoff games to enjoy this year, and a Grey Cup with intriguing possibilities. This Canadian-made operation continues on.