For most, today’s arrival of a soccer column on TSN’s website (penned by Noel Butler from Oranges at Halftime, no less) would mean nothing more than the lumbering dinosaur that is Canada’s biggest sports network, finally giving slight acknowledgement to the world’s largest game.
I’ve made no secret of my frustration with the big three letter over the last year. How a national broadcaster can continually ignore major soccer sporting events in favour of covering that blockbuster Atlanta Thrashers v NY Islanders game is beyond me. But I’ll resist piling on and not make a big deal of the fact that TSN had someone writing about fantasy sports before it had someone covering a real one.
Noel’s a great writer and an unabashed supporter of the Canada game, so I can’t think of a better choice as an addition to the TSN lineup, but as I alluded to – there is more to this innocuous move than just adding a writer.
For those who have been paying attention, you’ll already know that TSN has been quietly sliding back into the soccer scene for the past couple years now and their recent addition of TSN 2 has given them more of a platform to move further into that market. They now regularly broadcast Champions League and EPL games without interrupting the programming success that is their regular channel.
What you may not know is that TSN is among those currently bidding for the MLS broadcast rights in Canada. Sportsnet, CBC and the Score also find themselves in the mix – and speaking to insiders there, there is legitimate concern on their part as to which way the cards are going to fall.
It was revealed recently by the Sports Business Journal that MLS had asked Fox Soccer in the U.S. for $20 million a season for the rights to broadcast games. Fox, on average, only brought in about 53,000 viewers per game. By comparison, CBC Saturday afternoon games drew about 150,000 – a far cry from their Saturday evening movie, which brings in around the 800,000 range, but still within their targets, I’m told.
Making the current Canadian bid more interesting was the recent departure of CBC’s executive sports director Scott Moore. Moore, known as a soccer-friendly guy (think CBC’s massive World Cup undertaking), jumped ship on CBC in December and joined Rogers one day later as its president of broadcasting.
Sources tell Canadian Soccer News that Rogers and TSN are presently considered the two leading bids to win the MLS rights in Canada. It should come as no surprise considering the financial backing both are flush with, but what is surprising to hear is that TSN, with the three Canadian MLS teams on the horizon and a general Canadian public increasingly interested in the game here and abroad, are determined to win the rights.
For those who don’t remember it, TSN had respectable coverage in the 1990s with Graham Leggett and Soccer Saturday, but fell off completely in the first decade of the 2000s, opting instead to invest in the other Canadian football. Which, subsequently, with the full support of the broadcaster and their Friday Night football branding, they turned what was a floundering league into a ratings juggernaut.
This is something I’ve come to realize while covering Toronto FC and MLS: media groups – like TSN and Rogers Sportsnet – don’t offer an accurate picture of the sports landscape on their flagship programs. They offer a reflection of the sports properties they are invested in.
When people complain that they never see Toronto FC or MLS on TSN Sportscentre , the reason isn’t that the producers are acting on some kind of old boys conspiracy - hell bent on keeping the sport, they don’t understand, out - they’re acting on promoting the interests of TSN.
It’s no accident that the CFL has seen a return to health. Through exposure on their flagship program, additions of a dedicated panel of analysts and creation of a regular show, the league had its public profile raised to the point where corporate Canada took notice and invested.
And that is why, for those like myself, who have been waiting to see if domestic football would take off in Canada, are watching this TSN bid very closely.