It's all about the games

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

So maybe we just don't get it. Or perhaps we're overlooking something more obvious.

The critics have been ever vigilant in slamming the CBC's management-produced CFL telecasts over the past two weeks. The camera work has been shaky, they've said, the audio component weak. All of it very true.

The CFL has been less than pleased. Its broadcast director, Chris McCracken, told the Sun he considered the CBC's second no-commentary effort "marginally" better than the first.

You've also read or heard the ire directed at the Mother Corp. by at least two league governors, the B.C. Lions' David Braley and Keith Pelley of the Toronto Argos.

And yet, viewers are tuning in.

A whopping 580,000 of them for last Saturday's Lions-Saskatchewan Roughriders tilt, with a peak of 746,000 in the fourth quarter.

Many trees have been killed off in the past few days trying to explain the phenomenon. The most popular theory: Viewers are telling the networks the incessant chatter has to stop, that only the sounds from the stadium are much more preferable.

But consider the results of a Sun poll earlier this week. Asked whether the CBC should continue to produce announcer-less CFL games during the network's current lockout, 39% agreed "silence is golden." Only 11% indicated they missed the CBC's talking heads.

MOVE GAMES

The clear winner in the poll, though, were the 50% who want the games moved over to TSN -- a network that most definitely provides game commentary.

Maybe viewers just prefer TSN's Chris Cuthbert. No surprise if that's the rationale. Cuthbert is the pre-eminent football voice in this country.

More likely, though, is this: It's all about the game.

"It's an endorsement of where the league is and where it's going," said Cuthbert of the CBC's growth in audience the past two Saturdays.

"Our numbers (on TSN) are also up dramatically."

Added McCracken: "We attribute a lot of it to the strength of the CFL brand. It's grown and gotten stronger the last couple of years."

The numbers don't lie. TSN's per-game average of 366,000 is up 17% over 2004's full-season average (311,000). But Cuthbert notes it's even better than that.

"When you look at it head to head, the same number of games, it's closer to 25%," he said.

Most importantly to the league are audience figures in the men 18-49 demographic. They've risen 28%.

"That's significant for advertisers," said McCracken.

A closer look at the numbers also reveals another important fact: The Lions are the league's best draw.

Last Saturday's CFL game was the highest rated on any network this season, and it also brought the passionate Rider Nation into the mix (a perfect storm, if you will).

LIONS RULE

TSN's top two numbers this season (518,000 and 499,000) -- and four of its best five -- came during games involving B.C.

Expect the ratings picture to get even better in the weeks ahead. Interest in the CFL traditionally spikes ever further from Labour Day on.

"We're getting into the real meat of the season," said Cuthbert, who also feels greater parity around the league will help the cause, too.

"The league is closer to (the NFL) in that area now, maybe as close as you'll ever get to it in a nine-team league. The numbers have reflected that almost the whole year."

No matter who's talking -- or isn't.


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