If we are to believe the blather that’s abundant right now, especially on TV, there’s nothing going on in the pro-sports world.
Well, maybe in Britain and Europe they’re playing soccer in empty stadiums. But here in Canada and the United States there’s only the endless dance of dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying across leagues and player organizations about venues, COVID-19 testing, formats and payments. As for on-field or on-ice action, nothing to see so far.
Not so. But why do we all know little about the pro sport that’s actually being played? Well, put it down to the great Canadian sports TV swindle and sexism.
The opening game of the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup took place on June 27, with the North Carolina Courage defeating the Portland Thorns 2-1. A player who you might have heard about, Christine Sinclair, played for the Thorns, and Canadian national team goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé was in goal for North Carolina.
It was on CBS, an easily accessible U.S. network and it was a terrific match. Labbé pulled off the most cheeky, confident move at one point. Out of her area, with a Thorns player thundering toward her, she slyly, coolly swivelled the ball to a teammate. It was brilliant to watch.
All the NWSL games in the tournament, apart from the opener and the final, are on the CBS All-Access streaming service in the United States and Canada. In Canada, that’s a wee problem. There are very few subscribers here. The audience is infinitesimal. As a TV critic I avoid writing about what’s exclusively on the CBS streaming service because readers write to me and ask, “What’s that?”
Now, many CBS All-Access shows and series are actually picked up by Canadian channels for airing here. They buy the Canadian rights and that makes them available to a vast audience.
You’d think either TSN or Rogers Sportsnet would pick up the Canadian rights to the NWSL tournament. You’d think. Because, for a start, 14 Canadians play in the NWSL. Plus, of course, many players from the FIFA Women’s World Cup-champion U.S. team and multiple Olympic medalists from all over the world. You know, superstars of the game.
The Canadian all-sports cable channels aren’t interested, I’d wager, because they’re sitting pretty in the swindle that is the Canadian cable system. As colleague Simon Houpt pointed out recently, cable subscription and satellite fees continue to pour into TSN and Sportsnet while their outlay for rights, programming and production, is now negligible. They’re rolling in dough; tens and tens of millions of dollars come in automatically. Given the profits, I’d wager a lot of execs will be getting fat bonuses this year.
The sweet nectar that comes with rolling in dough can turn a person’s mind to mush. Or so I’m told anyway. That must be what’s happening when, daily, TSN and Sportsnet report breathlessly on all that dilly-dallying. They’re reporting on sports that aren’t actually happening and might – maybe, might – happen in the future. Meanwhile there’s a women’s pro-sports league going full-throttle in a gripping tournament, which is blithely ignored. What do you call that blissful ignorance? Sexism, to be accurate.
Sure, Rogers Sportnet would point in its defence to Top of Her Game, a chat series featuring women athletes hosted by Tara Slone. But while it’s a great and overdue idea, it’s a minimal-cost talk-fest.
Since a lot of TV sports commentary amounts to an obsession with stats and history, here’s a relevant reminder for all involved in this obliviousness to the NWSL. It was exactly a year ago, on July 7, 2019, that the U.S. beat the Netherlands in the final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. A total of 1.12 billion TV viewers watched that tournament in France last year. You want ratings? You can get them with women’s soccer.
CBS has discovered this truth. That opening game was the most-watched match in NWSL history, with about half-a-million viewers on the main CBS network, most in the coveted 18-49 age demographic. Further, it was also the most-watched soccer game on U.S. television that week, well ahead of the English Premier League game between Manchester City and Chelsea on cable network NBCSN.
Meanwhile, if you invest in CBS All-Access, the NWSL tournament rolls on with plenty of action to come. The Courage, the defending NWSL champions, have won all three of their games in Utah and top the tournament standings. On Wednesday, the Utah Royals, who sit in third place, play the OL Reign (2:30 p.m. ET), who are struggling a bit. The Royals feature veteran Canadian player Diana Matheson and fellow Canadian national team member Rebecca Quinn plays for the Reign.
If only we could all see it on easily available national TV in Canada. If only Canadian sports TV wasn’t a racket that currently amounts to accruing money for nothing.