Many Canadian football fans like to discredit either the NFL or CFL (depending on which they prefer) based on ratings. It seems it is a never-ending war between the two sets of fans (full disclosure here, I watch both). The fact is, comparing the ratings of the two is difficult. The CFL only plays four games a week, all of which are on national TV and never conflict with each other. On the other hand, the NFL plays anywhere between 12 and 16 games a week, any many of those games conflict. The numbers for Sunday Night Football are never truly accurate because BBM Canada, who keeps track of ratings for advertisers, doesn’t include people watch on NBC. Monday Night Football is comparable to CFL games, but it rarely features two top teams.
The playoffs are a bit easier to compare, but there is still the issue of the NFL playing more games. While it is reasonable fans will watch two CFL playoff games in a weekend, it is a lot less likely a person would watch all four NFL playoff games in the Wild Card or Divisional rounds. Not to mention two NFL playoff games in those rounds go head-to-head with Hockey Night in Canada. Of course the CFL playoffs face competition from the NFL, while most sports (and TV series) avoid competing with the NFL playoffs. Then there is the Super Bowl vs. the Grey Cup debate. Yes, there are those who watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials, or just for the halftime performance. How many, we will never know.
Because of these factors, it is easy for a fan of one league or the other to make a case that their favourite league is the most popular. It is easy to selectively choose variables to support your opinion.
However, there are two indisputable facts. CFL ratings were down from 2010 to 2011 and NFL ratings were up over the same period. 4.6 million watched the Grey Cup in 2011, down from 6.04 million in 2010. The two CFL Divisional Championship games averaged 1.54 million in 2011. In 2010, those same games averaged 2.0 million (note: the 2010 East Final includes RDS numbers because the Alouettes played in it. The two games in 2010 averaged 1.75 million on TSN, still above the 2011 number).
Sunday’s game averaged 8.15 million on CTV and RDS. That is up almost a million viewers, from 7.3 million last year. The Conference Championship Games averaged 2.2 million in 2012, compared to 2.12 in 2010. Those numbers are a small increase, but an increase nonetheless. It is an indisputable fact that CFL ratings were down in 2011, while NFL ratings were up. More people are watching American football, while less are watching the 110 yard game. Will it continue in to 2012 and beyond, who knows? The CFL better hope not because it will sign a new broadcasting deal sometime this year.
There are really only a few postseason games that are comparable between the two leagues. The obvious is the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup. 8.15 million and 4.6 million; a difference of 3.55 million. Last year the difference was only 1.26 million. There are factors in play, such as NFL competition against the Grey Cup, the Grey Cup only airs on cable and those who only watch the Super Bowl for ads (which is a pointless argument considering nobody likes the Canadian ads anyway), but I don’t think these factors would account for more than a third of Super Bowl viewers anyway. It wasn’t that long ago that the two games were neck and neck in the ratings. This wasn’t true this year.
The NFL Conference Championship and CFL Divisional Championship games are also comparable. The network/cable and NFL competition factors are still in play for these games. The NFL games are also played two hours later (3pm ET and 6:30pm ET, compared to 1pm ET and 4:30pm ET for the CFL games), which usually results in a small increase in ratings. The CFL games averaged 1.54 million, the NFL games 2.2 million; a difference of 660, 000. Not anywhere near as big a gap as the Grey Cup and Super Bowl, but still an increase from only 120, 000 in 2010.
Finally, the CFL’s Divisional Semi Finals and the NFL’s Divisional Playoffs. The Sunday games are comparable. They were both played on Sunday afternoons at 4:30pm ET. One of the NFL Sunday games is even on TSN in Canada. One can’t use the NFL’s Saturday games in the comparison because the CFL doesn’t play on Saturday. Canadians don’t traditionally watch football on Saturday either, we watch hockey. That is why the CFL reverted to playing their playoff games against the NFL after playing them on Saturdays for just one year in 2008. The CFL West Semi and AFC Divisional Playoff both aired on TSN at 4:30pm ET (the NFL game also aired on FOX, so advantage CFL here). The CFL game (Stampeders @ Eskimos) averaged 1.253 million; the NFL game (Giants @ Packers) averaged 1.244. Of course it is hard to believe that at least 100, 000 people didn’t watch on FOX (I did). The early games had 1.6 million watching Tiger Cats @ Alouettes on TSN/RDS and 1.12 million watching Texans @ Ravens on CTV.
TSN tends to average 400, 000 to 700, 000 viewers for Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football, depending on the matchup. CFL on TSN ratings come in slightly higher, usually in the 500, 000 to 800, 000 range. The are a number of factors, including the high number of NFL games per week and those who watch Sunday Night Football on NBC that make these hard to compare more closely.
For me, the main difference between the two leagues is the number of casual viewers. Each league has about the same amount of fans who every week, as the numbers for the regular season and early rounds of the playoffs prove. However, the NFL’s ratings take a significant jump for the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl compared to the CFL for the Divisional Championships and the Grey Cup. This was more clear than ever this season. There is probably no doubt that the NFL is the second most watched league in Canada, after the NHL. However, the CFL has nothing to be ashamed about for coming in 3rd, well ahead of baseball and curling.
The two leagues are forever linked in Canada because they are direct competitors. It is pointless to argue about which is more popular. Some people need to remember many of us are simply football fans. After hockey, football is the second most popular sport in Canada.
Editors Note: To those reading from the Saskatchewan Roughriders forum, yes these numbers are accurate (or at least as accurate as BBM can be). They are BBM 2+ AMA numbers sourced from BBM itself, CTV and TSN (who in turn originally got the numbers from BBM). I did not make them up. Some include both the English and the French broadcast, while others don’t (mostly because RDS numbers aren’t always available). However, I made every effort to make the fairest comparison possible, including using RDS numbers for any Alouettes playoff games (for the NFL, I’ve only included RDS for the Super Bowl). Anyone who uses this post to prove one league is superior in popularity is missing the point.
If you want to question them, please question them here. I tried to register with the Riders forum yesterday so I could discuss it with you guys, but I still don’t have posting privileges.