Monday, September 5, 2011

Canadians Love Their CFL

(From Calgary Herald)

 Before there were Real Housewives, Jersey Shore-dwellers, or Kardashians, there was still such a thing as reality television. It was called football season.
“Absolutely,” says Mark Milliere, the senior vice-president of production at TSN, the network that is the home of CFL coverage in Canada. “(Football is the) original reality television — sports really is the basis of and the original reality TV shows.
“Whoever coined the phrase back when we launched in the ’80s,” he adds, “if it wasn’t our original campaign, it was very close — and the slogan Real Life, Real Drama, Real TV. The ultimate reality show.”
What sets the CFL player apart from other pro athletes is that TSN and the CFL have teamed up to allow viewers to get to know their players better than most leagues do.
If the NHL produces gods — emotionally remote, inarticulate, entitled young men who possess the strength of Thor while earning paycheques the size of Goldman-Sachs board members — then the CFL on TSN has created something quite unlike any other collection of professional athletes you’re likely to follow.
A bunch of (extra) ordinary guys who play a brutal game for (relative) peanuts.
“I’ve worked for Major League Baseball,” CFL commissioner Mark Cohon says. “I’ve worked for the NBA. What’s so great about these (CFL) guys is they’re hard working guys. In the off season a lot of them have jobs, whether it’s real estate brokers or firemen or insurance brokers. And that’s why people can relate to them. They make a good living but they also have to work in the off season. I think our fans can relate to them and that’s where I think we benefit from that as a league.”
It also doesn’t hurt that where hockey players say as little as possible, football players, particularly CFL players, say a lot.
“I do think football players by nature are more expressive athletes,” Milliere adds. “It’s a different culture — so being able to have access to these guys and to capture that — it’s outstanding.”
And if the players are the talent, TSN’s all-star panel are the CFL’s version of JLo, Steven Tyler, Randy Jackson and the rest of those judges who provide commentary on the talent shows.
That panel, which features host Dave Randorf, and panel experts Chris Schultz, Jock Climie, Matt Dunigan, and Milt Stegall has become an event in itself, a go-to place CFL fans tune in to before, during and after games to watch.
For Schultz, who has been an on-air personality at the network since retiring as a player in the late 1990s, these are the best of times, for both the CFL and TSN personalities.
“Numerically, (in 1997) we were lucky if we would get 200,000 people to watch a (CFL) game across Canada,” Schultz says, “cause I sneaked a peek at the numbers one day. And at the time, I didn’t even know that was a low number. I was like yee-haw! I thought it was great. In my naive imagination, I was like 200,000 people were watching me! I was like, wow! It actually made me quite nervous.”
The days of 200,000 viewers for a CFL broadcast are long gone.
In 2010, the CFL attracted record numbers of television viewers — an average of 807,000 a game for the network’s full slate of 72 games, including a record number of games that drew well over one million viewers — NHL-size numbers unheard of in past CFL seasons.
For the coveted 18-34 year old demographic, the CFL on TSN was up 53 per cent over its 2009 season. (2011 numbers are not released until after the season. Milliere says the 2011 summer ratings are down slightly from 2010).
TSN, Cohon and digital technology have all arrived at the perfect moment to create a sports package unlike any other on the dial.
Since taking over exclusive coverage of the Grey Cup game, as well as the entire CFL regular season schedule, three years ago, TSN has re-prioritized where the CFL fits on its agenda.
There has been a higher visibility on Sportscentre broadcasts, including more in-depth features. Grey Cup weekend on TSN features virtually wall-to-wall Grey Cup coverage, transforming that network into the go-to place for Grey Cup news.
Meanwhile, the network has enjoyed the harmonic convergence of taking over as the CFL’s media rightsholder at the same moment a young, media savvy sports executive, Mark Cohon, took over the league.
“Mark has been a terrific commissioner to work with,” Milliere says. “He totally understands the power of TV — he’s a young dynamic guy who grew up with TV, he had exposure with the NBA — so when we go to Mark and talk about things like having greater access for our broadcasts, he’s 100 per cent supportive of that.”
TSN has evolved its broadcast of the CFL game with the addition of a number of tweaks, including increased sideline sound and making use of wireless digital cameras, which have sort of done for the football broadcast what the hand-held camera did to the movies and TV — puts you right there in the huddle with the quarterback, or right there in the end zone with the touchdown celebration, in the dressing room before and after the game, or right there on the sideline, as players decompress and coaches fret and fiddle.
Throw in such recent additions to TSN programming, such as live coverage of the CFL draft and this year’s Extra Yard, a behind-the-scenes documentary look at the Toronto Argonauts, and what you get from the CFL is as close as you’re likely to get to being inside the lines yourself.
“Commissioning Extra Yard,” says Milliere, “was a nice evolution of coverage and taking it somewhere else. We’re always trying things again with greater access . . . we’re always pushing, trying to take it up one level. We’ll never stop that.”
The up-close-and-personal approach TSN has taken to covering the CFL has produced results across the board, none more pronounced than with young male viewers who once might have fled to other hipper sports but now are turning in large numbers to the CFL brand.
“They’ve (TSN) done a great job in attracting a younger audience to us,” Cohon says.
“They’ve really leaned into this property (the CFL),” he adds. “It (the CFL’s fortunes) changed, I think, when we went fully exclusively with TSN.”
And while he has enjoyed the spoils that come from being part of one of the most-watched sports programs in the country — CFL games have been known to outdraw some NHL broadcasts on TSN — Schultz is the first to admit that viewers don’t tune in to the CFL on TSN to watch him, or to listen to Dunigan argue game planning with Stegall or Climie.
“I would never be arrogant enough to say what we do is the reason (why the CFL has risen in popularity)” he says. “I will be confident enough to say that it’s part of the reason, but the truth is, when you have a great game, people watch. And I think this is applicable to all sports: when you have a poor game, not as many people watch.
“I look at us more like, we’re the icing on the cake,” he adds, “and the cake is still the sport of football.”
It also doesn’t hurt that these days, it’s kind of cool to be Canadian — and one of the best ways to celebrate being Canadian is to become a CFL fan.
It turns out the CFL can look ahead to a whole new fan base in coming years: new immigrants who have read the government’s handbook about how to become Canadian.
“One of the interesting things that the government did,” Cohon says, “in the (new Canadian citizenship) book you have to read to be a new Canadian, I’m not sure what page it’s on, there’s a section on the CFL. . . . Those are things that we Canadians understand this is part of our culture and we want them to experience it.”

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