The National Post, November 18, 2002
Canadians and Americans have a lot in common. But there are differences. November in the United States means Thanksgiving. In Canada, it means football — specifically, the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup final. Canadian football means three downs instead of four, a longer, wider field, 12 players instead of 11, and a reliably massive television audience that advertisers are eager for their clients to reach an audience the CBC finds easy to sell.
“We’ve been with it for 51 years now,” said Doug Brooks, CBC’s chief marketing and sales officer for English television. “It’s a Canadian tradition, and even when the league was going through its tougher years, the Grey Cup was still a good event for us.”
“In 1997, it was on the brink,” said the Canadian Football League’s senior vice-president of marketing and sponsorships, Brent Scrimshaw. But its comeback began, and its growth continues. “We are finding the right place for our brand to live and we think we have that. We’ll always be fixing, but hopefully we’re down to tinkering instead of overhauling.”
But even when viewership of regular season CFL games has been down, people always watch the Grey Cup.
“We’re estimating this year somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2.7 or 2.8 million viewers,” said Dennis Dinga, vice-president director of broadcast buying at M2 Universal.
“That’ll be higher if the Argos happen to knock off Montreal.” That number is big by any standard — one of the biggest in Canada. The Academy Awards is about the only other broadcast that more Canadians watch.
“The only sports event that beats it is the Super Bowl,” Mr. Dinga said. And some years, the Grey Cup has done better — 3.9 million viewers at its peak, according to CBC’s Mr. Brooks. The Stanley Cup hockey finals, by contrast, have drawn about 1.7 million viewers a game over the last three years.
CBC’s Mr. Brooks says some advertisers come back every year, offering Dodge Trucks, General Motors and Mazda as three automotive examples. Canadian Tire returned this year. The Wendy’s hamburger chain is a reliable Grey Cup sponsor. GM and Mazda are feature sponsors, paying more for additional perks like announced billboards at the start of the broadcast, as well as having their names attached to features like the half-time report, or the Greatest Catches highlight package, which Standard Life is sponsoring this year.
“It makes the most sense for automotive; it makes sense for beer; it makes sense for male-skewed properties,” Mr. Dinga said, citing the most likely advertisers for the Grey Cup. “Gillette’s in there. It makes sense for the movie companies that only have a two-week window, because you’re garnering such huge audiences all at once.” And that audience is surprisingly gender-balanced — about 55% male, 45% female. The Grey Cup is not just widely watched, tuning in is a family activity.
An audience that vast and reliable is not cheap.
“It generates a big audience, but the rate is high, compared with a regular program,” said Florence Ng, vice-president, director of broadcast with Optimedia. “There is a pretty big premium to go with it.”
How big a premium depends on a sponsor’s commitment to Canadian football. Advertisers who buy spots in the regular season games — which average about 350,000 viewers — pay less for spots in the Grey Cup than advertisers who just want their commercials in the final. Buy spots throughout the season, and a thirty-second commercial in the Grey Cup will cost $35,000. Buy only the Grey Cup, and thirty seconds will cost about $45,000.
That price is likely to rise, because audiences have been growing for regular season games and playoffs. Post-season regional finals are drawing more than a million viewers per game; about 1.7 million for some playoff contests. The CFL wants to maintain that growth. It’s marketing CFL football aggressively.
“It’s built on heritage,” Mr. Scrimshaw said of the game’s appeal. “In our recent research, the one attribute that comes through time and time again — in every corner of the country it was stressed — was the fact that it’s distinctly Canadian. The strength of the game is that it’s seen as open and fast. In some cases they compare it to the other brand of football [the NFL]; it’s faster, stronger and more accessible. That is the core of the brand”
The WWF’s attempt to juice up the game — the XFL — lasted only part of a single season, largely unwatched. The CFL drew several conclusions from that debacle; it’s better to keep your core product reliable and use marketing to draw audience — gambits like hiring Shania Twain, herself on something of a comeback campaign, to play this year’s Grey Cup half-time show.
There’s also a Lotto 6/49 live draw planned for half time. “Everything we’re doing fits in and around the game,” Mr. Scrimshaw said. “But we never sacrifice the game.”
“They’re doing a better job of promoting it,” said Doug Checkeris, The Media Company’s managing partner. “There has been a resurgence in CFL viewing. We have a large number of clients who’ll be in there, and that’s good news for them. That’s a good property, and there aren’t a lot of good sports properties outside of hockey. There aren’t huge sports properties. But the Grey Cup game has always been big. It’s always been in the top 10 or 20 programs every year.”