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Baseball Blue Jays’ midseason surge rallies broadcaster Sportsnet past rival TSN

Jose Bautista’s home run and bat flip during Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers was a highlight of Toronto’s postseason run.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

While much of Canada is still grieving over the demise of the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, the team's owner is crying all the way to the bank.

Not to belabour the clichés but Rogers Media had its cake and ate it too, since it serves as both club owner and broadcaster. At the same time the Jays' remarkable midseason turnaround began filling the Rogers coffers with increased ticket sales, so, too, did the company's Sportsnet cable network strike a ratings bonanza.

When the Blue Jays' baseball season ended in Kansas City, Sportsnet had a brand new top 10 of most-watched sporting events in its history, all of them coming in October from the American League playoffs. No. 1, of course, was the sixth and deciding game of the ALCS on Oct. 23, which drew an average audience of 5.12 million. Second is the deciding game of the division series with the Texas Rangers on Oct. 14, in which an average of 4.88 million viewers watched Jose Bautista's bat flip. Third is Game 4 of the Texas series with an audience of 4.38 million. The 10th-place finisher is Game 5 of the ALCS on Oct. 21 with an audience of 3.45 million.

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Sportsnet, long the bridesmaid to Bell Media's TSN in the battle for supremacy in Canadian sports television over its 17-year history, can now claim to be No. 1 in that category for 2015 no matter what happens in November and December. That has long been Rogers's goal but no one, not even company executives, expected the decisive blows in the fight to come from the Blue Jays.

When Rogers won the competition for the NHL's Canadian national broadcast rights over Bell Media in 2014, with a bid of $5.2-billion over 12 years, that was supposed to be the weapon that would finally make Sportsnet the most-watched network in the month-by-month ratings war with TSN. While the hockey ratings in the first season were disappointing, they were still strong enough to bring Sportsnet its first monthly ratings wins in the fall of 2014.

TSN still had some life, as it came back in January thanks to an audience of 5.9 million for the gold-medal game of the world junior hockey championship but the NHL games put Rogers on top again. However, it was still a close race until the Blue Jays, who stumbled along at .500 through the first four months of the season, caught fire in August after GM Alex Anthopoulos's stunning series of trades landed stars such as David Price and Troy Tulowitzki.

The bonanza came in September when the Jays averaged 1.61 million viewers, an increase of almost triple from September, 2014. It also raised the average audience for the Jays in the 2015 regular season to 973,000, another record for Sportsnet. By the end of September, Sportsnet not only crushed TSN, it was second only to Bell Media's CTV as the most-watched Canadian network in prime time.

The only sad note in this for Rogers is that the October numbers showed what could have been possible if the Jays had succeeded in their attempt to make the World Series for the first time in 22 years. While the audience of 5.12 million for the final game did not come close to the record for a Canadian sports event – that is the 16.6 million who watched Canada win the men's hockey gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics when Sportsnet was part of a consortium with TSN and CTV – it was much better than Rogers' NHL numbers last spring when no game drew more than four million viewers.

It should be noted Rogers accomplished this despite battling the baseball playoff schedule. Since several U.S. networks control the postseason baseball rights, they gave prime-time preference to the big-market U.S. teams, relegating the Jays to lots of afternoon games. Then again, this also meant Sportsnet had the games to itself and did not share them with another network as it does with the NHL.

However, the viewers turned out in much bigger numbers for the Jays' afternoon playoff games than they did for Toronto Maple Leafs games in prime time. For example, an average of 3.85 million viewers took in Game 2 of the ALCS on the afternoon of Oct. 17 while 1.6 million watched the Leafs play against their former star Phil Kessel for the first time in a game with the Pittsburgh Penguins a few hours later.

The dominance extended to radio as well. The fall radio ratings are not available yet but in the overall summer numbers, the Jays' flagship station, Sportsnet The Fan 590, clobbered TSN 1050 Toronto. The Fan drew an average audience share of 4 per cent in number of hours tuned from June through August while TSN had a minuscule 0.5-per-cent share.

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