Mainstream gets wider

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:21 AM ET

Gordon Craig once fondly spun this tale about the snickers he'd often hear back in the day, when the topic of discussion would turn toward the little cable television network he'd just birthed.

Long before The Sports Network, which first got its feet wet in 1984, became simply known more by an acronym that's now household stuff to every sports fan across this land.

Back then, though, Craig often heard it called "the darts network," a not-so-complimentary bit of homage toward the sometimes cultish offerings that filled TSN's programming schedule way back when.

My, how things have changed.

Here was TSN yesterday, boldly announcing it had secured a deal that would put Canada's biggest one-day sports event -- the Grey Cup -- on its network starting in 2008.

The Grey Cup on cable.

Unthinkable, you say?

Think again.

Really, though, we should have seen this coming. The Canadian Football League surely did. It saw TSN's audiences for CFL games nearly even with the venerable CBC -- the difference was about 6-7% in 2006 -- and took serious notice.

TOP RATINGS

"Of our 10 top rated games in 2006, six were on TSN," said league commissioner Tom Wright yesterday.

The CFL saw a cable network capable of drawing 3.5 million viewers for the world junior hockey championship final. Almost right on par with a CBC Grey Cup audience.

Sure, it's true that TSN's reach doesn't quite match the CBC's -- at least not yet. About 90% of Canadians have access to the specialty channel (with a cable or satellite package, of course), but network president Phil King said yesterday "we have the potential" to raise that number by 99%.

The CFL is betting TSN can pull that off in two years, just in time for the new deal to kick in.

It's true the CBC never got a chance to submit a counter-bid, and perhaps it's because, in part, some league governors never forgot about the fiasco of 2005, when a CBC technicians' strike had the public broadcaster putting some games on the air without commentators. Ire was also raised this season when the CBC didn't air every playoff game in high-definition format.

While Wright insisted yesterday none of this worked against the CBC, it's worth noting assurances have been built into the new TSN/RDS deal that will prevent such things from happening again.

"Our game, better than many, shines in high-definition," said Wright. "It's the best way to show it. And there is an unwavering commitment from TSN and RDS to invest in that technology."

The new toys don't end there. Central to the deal for TSN/RDS was the inclusion of new media rights. There are plans to stream games live on TSN Broadband, and offer mobile phone and video-on-demand content.

"It will allow fans to experience the CFL and TSN in a way like they never have before," said King.

Big bucks surely helped seal this deal -- about 75 million of them, or so the word on the street goes. But make no mistake about it: There was some familial feelings at play here.

Ten years ago, when the CFL was on its deathbed, it was then-TSN president Keith Pelley (now the Toronto Argos CEO and head of the CFL's broadcast committee) who decided his network had to do what it could to save the great Canadian game. He created Friday Night Football, and turned CFL telecasts into an event.

HELPED SAVE LEAGUE

"There were a couple of times in our history," Wright mused yesterday in looking back, "that if it wasn't for (TSN), then we might not be here to make this kind of announcement."

Together, they've managed to do more than survive. They've flat out flourished. Though this year provided a bit of a step back, CFL television ratings have been on a serious rise over the last half-decade or so.

Now King talks about creating another "night" for the CFL -- maybe the Saturday spot the CBC will vacate after next season, or perhaps even Thursday.

"Like the NFL divvies up its brands," he said.

It's big-league talk, the kind Gordon Craig couldn't really utter when darts, billiards and Australian Rules Football had rather prominent shelf space on TSN.

"I remember when TSN was what they called a small cable specialty service," said CTV Inc. president Rick Brace, a producer in the network's early days.

"Now it's grown into something that's very mainstream."

My, how things have changed.


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