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Bandwagon: Once a national TV staple, Grey Cup now restricted to specialty channels

Untitled23Bar manager Ian Wilson says the Heart and Crown in the ByWard Market will have plenty of television sets tuned to the Grey Cup game Sunday evening. WAYNE CUDDINGTON 


Planning on watching the Redblacks take on the Eskimos in Sunday’s Grey Cup? Unless you have satellite or cable television — and in many cases, not just basic cable TV — you can’t see it from here.

Or anywhere else without access to specialty channel TSN or one of the international networks with Canadian Football League broadcast rights. You CAN watch it on the Internet through a YouTube stream, but only in countries without a television deal.

Once the most watched event of the year on Canadian television, the Grey Cup broadcast has been missing from the country’s major networks since 2008.

But its absence might only now be registering on Ottawa residents newly caught up in Redblacks excitement.

It’s not just football, says Bob Stellick.

“That’s a big challenge for sport everywhere right now,” says the Toronto sports marketing consultant. “With the cable companies and the satellite companies having the advantage of both selling advertising and charging (subscriber) fees, they’ve basically trounced the traditional over-the-air broadcasters.”

Fans lacking Bell Media’s TSN or RDS French-language channels can still see the game at a bar — just about every establishment should be showing it — or the home of a friend or relative who pays for the service. And as many as 7,500 people will watch it on a super-sized screen at the TD Place Arena — much more comfortable than the Redblacks’ outdoor stadium next door. Admission is free, but you’ll need to get a ticket in advance at

The TSN rights deal, worth about $4 million a year for each Canadian football team, has been a godsend for the CFL, Stellick believes, even if the league loses access to the perhaps 20 per cent of Canadian television viewers without cable or satellite. As teams budget for player salaries and other operating costs, “it’s a huge relief to start your season with a $4-million cheque,” he says.

Longer term, however, the head of Stellick Marketing Communications fears such exclusive deals pose a danger to all sports as more consumers opt out of cable or, in the case of young people who have grown up with Internet streaming, never consider connecting.

CFL viewership is already falling, although some have suggested the decline is more a result of a weak franchise in the giant Toronto market than an overall shift away from Canadian football on TV. Last weekend’s East final between Ottawa and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats drew an average audience of 1.09 million, an eight-per-cent drop from the 2014 final between the Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes, Yahoo Sports reported. The West final between Edmonton and Calgary had 1.3 million viewers, down 13 per cent from the final between the same teams a year earlier.

The 2014 Grey Cup attracted four million viewers, the lowest since the rating system changed in 2009. The Super Bowl, one of the world’s biggest sports events and shown in Canada on over-the-air network CTV, another Bell Media property, had about nine million Canadian viewers.

CFL spokesman Paulo Senra believes the ratings might not reflect the changing viewing habits of young people.

“I’m 31 years old, and usually I’m at the bar for major events like this, or gathering at a friend’s place,” says Senra. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve watched a Grey Cup game, or any playoff game … where I’ve watched it alone.”

The live streaming of the CFL playoffs is new this year. Though available only outside of North and South America, the United Kingdom and Australia (or to those with the know-how to sidestep Internet barriers), it has made the games available to ex-pats, military personnel stationed overseas and the occasional other foreign fan of Canadian football.

Senra couldn’t say whether it’s a first step toward the paid, available-to-all streaming offered by other leagues. Any such service, however, would have to be negotiated with TSN, which recently extended its broadcast deal with the CFL until 2021.

Ian Morrison of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting advocacy group says Ottawa fans denied access to Sunday’s broadcast shouldn’t feel snubbed. The same thing is happening around the globe as media companies realize that live sports are the one remaining string tying people to their monthly cable bill.

Morrison said a decision by the BBC to drop many local soccer matches, forcing people to pay for SKY Sports to watch their national sport, sent the U.K. public into a frenzy. In Canada, basketball and baseball have been walled off entirely, with the Blue Jays’ historic playoff run this fall available only available to Rogers Sportsnet subscribers.

Rogers’s acquisition of NHL broadcasting rights, meantime, has forever changed Hockey Night in Canada, with Rogers producing the games that air on the CBC and collecting the ad revenue.

The effect of the shift, he said, is to maximize the number of wealthy consumers watching sports, allowing broadcasters to charge advertisers more.

“The CFL doesn’t care about letting my aunt watch the game. It cares about how much money it can get from broadcasters. The broadcasters get their money from the advertisers. The advertisers want to reach people with more money,” Morrison said.

“They are leaving out lower-income people. There is something that is not fair about it.”

10-yard penalty

Henry Burris had 5,693 passing yards this season, not the 5,703 reported Thursday. The total was amended by the official statisticians because of a change related to the final game of the regular season.

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