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Ratings vs rankings: What the TV deals and MLS marketing push mean for Canadian soccer

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A new TV deal and an MLS marketing push in Canada gives us insight into the league’s complicated relationship with Canadian soccer.

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Luke Galati

CTV, Canada’s most-watched station, has announced it will show seven MLS fixtures featuring Canadian teams this season. Toronto FC will be involved in three of those matches, with games against Vancouver, Minnesota and the cup rematch versus Seattle selected.

MLS and Bell Media signed a multi-year extension for the league’s sole broadcasting rights in English in Canada. The deal, finalized in January, gives TSN (which Bell owns in addition to CTV) the English-language rights to all MLS matches until 2021. Quebecor’s TVA Sports won the French-language rights for the same period over RDS, which had previously broadcasted games in Quebec.

To all of which you might say, ‘so what? It’s just a TV contract’. In a sense, sure - but having MLS games broadcast on CTV and available to any Canadian is no small matter, and speaks volumes to the growth of the sport north of the 49th parallel. This, in conjunction with MLS’ plan to increase its Canadian marketing, warrants some discussion as it gives us an insight into the league’s complicated relationship with Canadian football.

The boys done good

Luke Galati

First, and most obviously, the decision to test-run MLS games on a national network is due in large part to the success of Canadian teams in last year’s MLS playoffs. The Eastern Conference final between Toronto and Montreal resulted in record TV ratings for MLS north of the border. The first leg exceeded one million viewers, only to be surpassed the following week with 1.4 million tuning in for the return leg at BMO Field. The MLS Cup final topped this yet again, with an audience of over 1.5 million.

As reported by Waking the Red, Bell was convinced by Toronto FC’s playoff run to test games on its national network. The decision to air select games on CTV is unmistakable proof of an increasing commercial interest in the sport, driven by soccer’s ascension into Canada’s general sporting conscience. Last year’s playoff ratings were a culmination of this trend, the success of Canadian teams (more so one – sorry Montreal) and the sheer quality and excitement of those matches. Bell, well aware of this, is giving the sport a chance on a national platform.

Pushing north

Luke Galati

MLS and Bell’s agreement becomes even more important when contextualized within the league’s Canadian marketing push. Sold as helping to promote the sport in Canada, MLS has created a ‘national marketing group’ to draw Canada-wide attention to key MLS events. This includes MLS Decision Day (the final matches of the regular season), the All-Star Game and the playoffs. The league is modelling this based on the NHL’s Winter Classic, as well as the NBA’s popular slate of Christmas Day games.

The driving logic, according to Don Garber, is that “all leagues need special moments”. This is where the new TV deal with Bell comes in, as it represents the main vehicle in which the marketing strategy is put into effect. By featuring big matchups and marquee league events, MLS, according to Garber, hopes to “connect the dots between these three (Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto) and create a national fan base”.

Do they really love us?

Luke Galati

Apologies for the melodramatic sub-heading, but it remains a question worth asking. Earlier this month, Tej Sahota wrote an excellent article on MLS’ plan to grow the game in Canada. In it, Tej argues the proposed Canadian designated-player rule, which would encourage top Canadian footballers to play on Canadian MLS clubs through league subsidies, is an ineffective way to grow the game in Canada. Instead, the best thing MLS could do to make the Canadian men’s national team competitive is classifying Canadians as domestic players. Currently, Canadians count as international players on US clubs.

I couldn’t agree more with Tej’s analysis. The Canadian DP rule alone would only drive interest in Canada’s three MLS markets, but not do much for the development of the game nationwide. My take is that MLS’ strategy is not misguided in developing the game in Canada - they just don’t really seem to care.

I think MLS’ plans are really about increasing TV ratings, and growing their three existing Canadian clubs within their respective markets. Though Garber plays lip service to growing the sport across the country, he is not really concerned about the general state of Canadian football so long as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal remain successful franchises.

The agreement with Bell is an extension of this calculation. Sure, games will be on CTV, a national station. But the three biggest cities, also home to the Canadian MLS franchises, can easily account for any jump in viewership. Also, as Tej points out, are people in Halifax or Regina really going to care about the Toronto-Minnesota match?

Looking at the NHL’s Winter Classic, the model MLS is emulating, is revealing. Though effective at generating local fan engagement, the national TV ratings are poor. The 2014 Winter Classic drew a (US) national ratings share of 2.5 per cent. In 2015, the number dropped to 1.9 per cent, and in 2016, 1.6 per cent. These are not good numbers, and can’t have been lost on MLS. The Winter Classic is, however, proven to drive up local interest significantly, which aligns with MLS’ main strategic goals in Canada.

Luke Galati

If the league is serious about growing the game in this country, MLS should classify Canadians as domestics on all league rosters. Yet league action on this has been slow. A recent rule change allows Canadians coming through MLS academies to be considered as domestic players, but while positive that is still not enough. As Tej points out, this does not include late bloomers and the large number of Canadians developed through the NCAA system.

And really, why not just change the rule entirely? Garber’s comments on the matter have been perplexing. He recently said the NASL’s move to count Canadians as domestics was a “violation of US law”. He also commented that the Canadian roster situation would “resolve itself”. If you’re hoping for change, these are hardly encouraging words.

Ultimately, Garber’s assertion that MLS will not expand further in Canada is the most telling. This is an obvious way to grow the game nationally. Now, are there some bigger American markets the league is justifiably more interested in? Absolutely. But to so quickly preclude any further expansion in Canada is quite telling of the limitations of MLS’ ‘vision’ for Canadian soccer.

Garber’s public statements seem at odds: on the one hand, he says he wants to “connect the dots” between the three Canadian MLS cities, yet the league will be looking to “growing national television ratings” and focusing on making “clubs more popular in their local markets”. The latter, without other comprehensive changes, won’t lead to the former. Again, the big three Canadian cities alone can drive a big boost in national TV ratings, but making Toronto FC more popular in it’s own market will do little to help drive interest in Edmonton or St. John’s. It really does seem as if MLS is merely content with securing and growing their current Canadian franchises. To me, this makes the need for a Canadian professional league even greater (hello CPL!) to develop, in conjunction with our MLS teams, Canadian talent.

Don’t get me wrong: I think having games on CTV is great for Toronto FC, MLS and Canadian soccer. It really shows how far this project has come. But if Garber and MLS are really committed to growing the sport in Canada, less platitudes and more substantial changes are needed.