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Soccer's television ratings on the rise

Aldo DiFelice loves the reaction when he explains soccer's place here to non-Canadians.

"People I talk to in Europe, in Latin America still can't believe it when I tell them soccer doesn't even beat curling," says the president of the Telelatino channel.

"Then I tell them I'm not even sure it beats bowling."

Well, in some cases it doesn't, but soccer can boast of two rarities: rapidly growing television ratings and even more rapidly increasing exposure.

"For a soccer fan, it's like you died and went to heaven," says TSN and Fox Sports World Canada commentator Dick Howard. "There's more Premier League soccer on TV here than there is in England."

There are reasons for this, especially with English soccer. It does relatively well in the ratings. Even though games air on Saturday mornings, a traditional sports TV dead zone, Rogers Sportsnet's Premier League games ratings have increased 71 per cent in five years and are averaging 71,000 this season.

Other leagues are doing well, too.

TSN's Champions League games ratings have increased 44 per cent in the last four years and last year's European championship tournament showed an 88 per cent improvement.

Telelatino, which has traditionally drawn solid audiences for Italian soccer, recorded some of its highest sports ratings with Copa America games. An Italy-South Korea World Cup game from 2002 attracted 274,000 viewers — the largest in the channel's history.

Fox Sports World Canada's Premier League games average 12,400 viewers on Sunday mornings and Monday afternoons. While not much of a crowd, that is more than six times the digital channel's 1,800 average audience.

Of course, this is all relative.

Soccer isn't about to challenge hockey in the nation's hearts. In fact, decades-old NHL games can still outdraw soccer in prime time.

On the other hand, audiences for the 2002 World Cup (1.1 million on CBC) and Euro finals (1.3 million on CTV and TSN) rival NHL broadcasts. Those numbers prove there is an audience out there.

In a television world where increased ratings for sports are rare, soccer has succeeded for one reason: diversity.

Before the European teams started filling rosters with foreign-born players, Italians watched Italian soccer; English fans watched the Premier League and so on.

That's no longer the case.

"One of the main reasons is that the game is so international," says Telelatino analyst Tino Baxa. "I follow Milan, but 10 of their players were foreign-born. So that gets me interested in soccer from other countries."

Add to that Canada's growing diversity and you've got a recipe for success — or at least one for beating bowling.

BIG BREAK: That huge sigh or relief heard yesterday morning came from TSN, where many a nail was bitten to the quick in Canada's 5-4 win over Slovakia in the world hockey championship quarterfinal. There'll be more of that tomorrow in the semifinal (10 a.m., TSN). The last time Canada failed to make the world final, when Russia played Slovakia in 2002, only 94,000 tuned in. This year's average for Canadian games is 345,000, 91 per cent higher than last year. ... Did The Fan 590's personnel changes, dropping Damien Cox while shuffling Gord Stellick to mornings and replacing him with Chuck Swirsky, produce higher ratings? Considering the vagaries of the ratings system, it's highly doubtful any of the changes had that much effect. ... Matt Dunigan returns to TSN's football panel while Eric Tillman and Neil Lumsden will work the Sportsnet side. ... CHUM has grabbed Monday Night Football from Craig Broadcasting on a one-year deal. TSN will likely carry the ESPN version next year.

[http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1115935813184&call_pageid=970599109774&col=Columnist980457778002/url]

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