Once upon a time, most of Canada would gather around the ol’ RCA (or Philco, or Dumont, or Electrohome) to watch the Grey Cup game, the championship of the good ol’ Canadian Football League. It was one of the most Canadian things you could do, right up there with ordering a double-double from Tim’s. (Note to double-double drinkers: why do you bother with coffee?)
On Sunday, several million Canadians will tune into the Grey Cup game. But several million more – WAY more – will tune into the Super Bowl in February. While the Grey Cup still gets solid numbers in Canada, the Super Bowl has outdrawn our game for years. While the Grey Cup gets diehard football fans and a few curious eyes at small gatherings, the Super Bowl has become a major communal event in this country. How has this happened?
Part of the reason is Canada’s inexorable slide into the American cultural maw. But another reason, as I see it, has to do with the CFL’s television host, TSN, and the semi-Canadian broadcaster, CTV.
First, a little history.
In the days before TSN (the Toronto Sports Network, as residents of the hinterlands outside of Toronto have labeled it for its overwhelming Toronto bias), CTV and CBC both aired CFL games. But there were times – plenty of times, in fact – when not all CFL games would be on TV. I guess CBC had more important things to show on Sundays, like Hymn Sing. (Hymn Sing, by the way, was a real Canadian TV show. Just try putting something like that on CBC today.) As late as the 1990s, not all games were televised. Even marquee games, like the Labour Day games between Edmonton and Calgary, might not make the cut for TV. (On July 14, 1994, Matt Dunigan set a CFL record with 713 yards passing in a game against my Edmonton Eskimos. I listened to the game on the radio because it wasn’t televised. In hindsight, probably a good thing.)
But that was not the case for the Grey Cup. For years, the cup was such a big deal that both CTV and CBC aired the game simultaneously, with their broadcast crews splitting the duties. It was the Super Bowl before the Super Bowl.
But in 2007, TSN dropped a bundle of money and obtained exclusive rights to CFL games. That meant all games would be shown, which was great. Unfortunately, TSN’s broadcasts were dreadful, especially in comparison to NFL games. Replays were so rare, I often wondered if they had to pay for each one individually. The direction was terrible, with long, tedius shots of players standing on the sidelines, doing nothing. The announcers (remember dreary John Wells?) could put you to sleep in a 50-49 game. I’m convinced that TSN’s dreadful broadcasts chased away millions of fans.
Thankfully, those days are over. While not quite at NFL quality, TSN has upped its game (super slo-mo, lots of replays, more cameras, better announcers). So the telecasts are not a problem anymore.
But there is an unintended consequence of TSN’s exclusivity contract, which the league is paying for today.
First, you have to pay for TSN. It’s available only for those with cable, as opposed to free over-the-air networks like CTV and CBC, effectively reducing the number of potential viewers. More importantly, with no CFL games to show, that freed up CTV (a ‘Canadian’ TV network whose only reason to exist is to air American network crap) to flood the zone with National Football League games. For example, last weekend when the CFL finals were being shown on TSN, you could watch no less than FOUR NFL games on CTV channels – for free. TSN promotes CTV’s NFL games during CFL games, and CTV promotes NFL games relentlessly, with nary a promo spot for CFL games on TSN (CTV and TSN are both Bell properties).
So while the Grey Cup used to be televised for free to anyone with a TV – on two networks – today the championship game is on one station that you have to pay for. Seriously, CTV? You couldn’t sacrifice ONE Sunday of NFL games to make the Grey Cup available to all Canadians? Apparently not.
The result has been that a younger generation of football fans has gravitated to the NFL. This isn’t entirely surprising, I guess. Canadians, particularly young Canadians, are entirely in the thrall of the American entertainment/sports complex. Then we have newcomers to Canada. Statistics Canada reports that 23 percent of our 2021 population are or have been immigrants to Canada, the highest in our history and the highest of any G7 country. Newcomers to Canada will not know the Calgary Stampeders, but they might well know the Dallas Cowboys.
I guess I should take comfort in the fact that the Grey Cup game still gets millions of viewers. But like pretty much every Canadian cultural institution, it is fighting an uphill battle to remain relevant – not unlike Canada itself. But I’ll always be there, awaiting the return of my Edmonton ‘Elks’ to the big game.
I will be waiting for a while.