With only days to go until the start of an important CFL season in which the Grey Cup will be awarded for the 100th time and television rights scrutinized heavily ahead of a contract renewal, commissioner Mark Cohon couldn’t be calmer.
He could worry about television ratings (they slipped last year), broadcasting rights (the league’s deal with TSN expires in 2013), stadiums (several teams find themselves close to homelessness) and/or the struggle to win fans in Southern Ontario.
Instead, he reclassifies each of his problems into opportunities ahead of Friday’s season openers, which include a rematch of last year’s Grey Cup as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers travel to Vancouver to face the B.C. Lions.
“I think we have great momentum,” Cohon says. “No. 1 is the renaissance we’re having with new stadiums being built. Two, we have continued strong ratings. Then there is the power of the 100th Grey Cup. And No. 4 is the play on the field.”
No matter the spin, this is a crucial year for the league. Like a free agent in the last year of a contract, the league needs to put in the type of effort that will make it easier to secure a long-term television deal that will pad revenues and provide a foundation for the next five years.
There are two seasons left in the current deal, but both sides would like to see something new in place before it expires. TSN has used its exclusive rights to develop a strong national franchise, and the league has seen the number of people watching its games skyrocket since TSN took over from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in 2006.
While executives at CBC and Rogers Communications Inc. have both hinted they are interested in broadcasting football games, TSN president Stewart Johnson doesn’t sound willing to risk having the league’s games on another network after relentlessly promoting the game for five years.
“When we became the exclusive broadcaster of the CFL, we certainly put all resources of TSN, CTV and now Bell Media behind the content,” he said.
“Exclusivity has allowed us to put resources in place, hire the best talent and amortize that over the most number of games and to have that stability to feel confident to put extra resources against that property.”
Last year, CFL games drew an average 700,000 viewers on the Bell Media-owned sports network, up from 397,000 in its first exclusive year with the league. The league has also enjoyed strong attendance, with an average 28,000 fans taking in each of the league’s 77 games last year.
Broadcasters are keen to lock up sports properties, because they are seen as one of the last ways to draw a large number of viewers to networks at the same time. More people are tuning into their favourite programs on portable devices or recording them to watch later, and advertisers place a premium on sporting events because viewers still prefer to watch live.
The existing contract between TSN and the CFL is worth an estimated $16-million a year. The league would like to see an increase in its next deal.
“I obviously don’t want to negotiate through the media, but my take is that we are only second to the NHL in this country in terms of ratings so we’re well positioned to take advantage of an interested marketplace,” Cohon said. “When you look at PVR-proof programming, that’s what this is and we are definitely a strong asset.”
It could be an even stronger asset if Cohon could finally find a way to captivate sports fans in Southern Ontario. He’s been hitting the streets himself, holding brunches with small groups in cities such as St. Catharines and London.
He’s also made $500,000 of marketing money available to the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, an unusual move from head office intended to boost the teams’ profile in their communities.
“I don’t think we should look at the end of this year and find out if the Argos are a huge success and popular as the Maple Leafs,” he said. “But strategically, there are things we can be doing in the community. Obviously, as commissioner I can’t get involved with the play on the field, but I think there’s a lot of excitement around both teams.”