When Mark Cohon became commissioner of the Canadian Football League in 2007, he made it an immediate priority to target a younger audience. Three seasons later, the numbers suggest this isn't your father's CFL any more - or not exclusively your father's, anyway.
This season's television ratings show that CFL's audience is growing overall, and continuing to grow younger. Average viewership in the coveted 18-34 age group was 163,000, up 13 per cent on a comparable basis from a year earlier. Total audience, all ages, was up 5 per cent, the league said.
That key 18-34 group now accounts for 20 per cent of the CFL's total audience, double that of 2007. While the league's biggest audience still lies with the over-35 set, the demographic shift under Cohon is the strongest evidence that his marketing strategy is on track.
"They're definitely going in the right direction," said sports marketing consultant Mark McConnell of Flow Experience Inc. in Toronto, who has worked with sponsors on CFL promotions. "From a sponsor standpoint, would they like to see that next generation of fans? Absolutely."
Much credit for these inroads can be traced back to a controversial deal with TSN that predated Cohon: a five-year, roughly $80-million contract struck in 2006 by predecessor Tom Wright for exclusive television and digital rights for Internet, mobile and video-on-demand. The deal took effect in 2008 and includes a TSN-held option for an additional year, which would take it to the end of 2013.
Critics at the time slammed the league for giving away too much for too little, but both the league and sports-marketing experts agree that the partnership has delivered what the CFL needed: stronger branding, a bigger and younger skewing audience, and a growing sponsorship base.
The partnership has been a boon for TSN too. CFL broadcasts are their most watched property, with an average viewership of more than 800,000, exceeding the average of 714,000 watching TSN's National Hockey League broadcasts.
"TSN has been a great partner for us," Cohon said in an interview this week. "We've worked very closely with them in making sure that they're marketing us properly, not just during [CFL]broadcasts but throughout all their broadcasts, and they've made us their number one priority. I think that's brought more people into our game."
The per-game audience on TSN is up an astounding 133 per cent from less than 350,000 in 2007, although the league itself points out that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. In 2009, BBM Canada, the company that compiles television ratings, switched from using monitors attached to TV sets to portable people meters (PPMs) - devices that are carried by survey participants and pick up signals from television broadcasts they are watching, regardless of where they may be. That change caused live-sports ratings to surge, since many fans habitually watch these events with friends or at bars and restaurants.
Still, the CFL says, the increase in numbers has been a boon to advertising and sponsorships, as PPMs have uncovered a larger audience watching its games. This year - the first full season under PPM - revenue from national sponsor partnerships has jumped 29 per cent.
However, after taking big leaps in 2008 and 2009, the pace of growth in the 18-34 share of game viewership has shown signs of slowing; it climbed a modest 1 percentage point in 2010. Sports marketing experts point out that youth participation in football in Canada is declining, and younger football fans tend to be more drawn to the glitter and fame of the National Football League. And, as many other sports leagues and businesses are discovering, that demographic is consuming information and entertainment in a perplexingly different way than their parents did.
"It's a real struggle for every sports organization to appeal to the next generation of fans," said Cheri Bradish, a professor of sports management at Brock University. "This cohort is totally different."
Meanwhile, the league is occasionally still sending mixed signals about which audience it is most interested in courting - as with its marquee Grey Cup halftime show. After experimenting with younger, non-Canadian pop acts such as the Black Eyed Peas a few years ago, the league is going with a pair of homegrown senior citizens - Randy Bachman and Fred Turner - as the entertainment for this Sunday's intermission. The choice is a head-scratcher for marketing experts.
On the sponsorship side, the league has focused on reducing its number of sponsors but extracting a larger financial commitment from each. The CFL now has 23 national sponsorship partners, about half as many as it did three years ago, but the average size of each sponsorship deal has risen 34 per cent over that time.
Royalties from CFL-licensed merchandise are up 150 per cent in the past three years. Reported attendance in stadiums league-wide has been holding steady throughout the decade (the per-game average dipped 5 per cent this season to 27,146, partly due to the B.C. Lions' temporary move to the smaller Empire Field). Plans are in place for a new Ottawa team to begin play in the 2013 season, and a successful regular-season game in Moncton this year has opened the door for a possible expansion into Atlantic Canada.
All eight teams have stable ownership, while six of the eight are either break-even or profitable. But the two that aren't - Toronto and Hamilton - get to the heart of perhaps Cohon's biggest failing: He still isn't winning over the country's biggest population and business base, southern Ontario.
The East Division semi-final game this month featuring Toronto and Hamilton attracted an average TV audience of 1.2 million, barely half the 2.1 million who tuned in to the West Division semi-final later the same afternoon.
"It's their biggest challenge, without a doubt," said Brian Cooper, a Toronto-area sports marketing executive. "This is a tough market to break."
"Southern Ontario is Mission Critical for us," Cohon said. "Toronto and southern Ontario is the media capital of the country and the corporate capital of the country. What I've said to our team is, let's play to our strengths. We are very strong with small business owners, with young families a little above the average income in Canada, and we're going to continue to focus on them. I'm not as worried about focusing on the Air Canada Centre crowd."
"I would be naive to say we don't have more work ahead of us in southern Ontario. But the future is brighter in southern Ontario, because of the changes that have been happening over the last few years."