On some levels, the NFL’s expansion of Thursday Night Football has been a big success, but on others, it’s been a flop. They’re not the only pro football league trying to make Thursday a big football night, though, as the Canadian Football League announced Friday that they’re starting their own regular Thursday Night Football package on TSN (which will be aired in the U.S. on ESPN3, and occasionally on ESPN networks). The CFL has done Thursday games before, but making them consistent and with a differently-packaged feel (these will include local bands, features from Kate McKenna and Cabbie Richards, a social hub and a focus on fan atmosphere at and around the stadium) every week from the start of the season to Labour Day is a new approach. What may be really interesting to watch is how this compares to the highs and lows we’ve seen from the U.S. version of Thursday Night (NFL) Football.
The initial NFL TNF idea (games over the second half of the season, only broadcast nationally on the NFL Network) was a substantial factor in gaining wider distribution for NFLN, and making it all-season in 2014 with the first half of the season broadcast on a conventional network sparked a bidding war that CBS eventually won. The games were often terrible even before the NFL went to a full season of them last year, and that didn’t improve matters; we saw plenty of awful TNF games in 2014. However, the ratings were still generally good, both on CBS/NFLN and in the latter half of the season when games were only on NFLN, and every network tried to bid when the package came up after the season (CBS eventually retained it for 2015). Thus, despite scheduling, matchup and competitiveness problems, TNF has still been a big success for the NFL, and it’s been a success for CBS as well.
The CFL version may have some of those same scheduling issues. Two of the first three games feature the Ottawa Redblacks, who only entered the league in 2014 as an expansion team and finished 2-14 last season, and the third one involves the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (whose 2014 record of 7-11 was better than what we saw from Ottawa, but still put them in the basement of the West Division). Both of those teams (and Winnipeg in particular, following an offseason where they spent a lot of money on free agents) could be better this year, but that isn’t necessarily a great sign. The Montreal Alouettes are also on this schedule an incredible seven times, remarkable considering that there are only 10 Thursday games. If we see the Montreal team that went 8-2 down the stretch last year, that could be fine, but if we see the one that started 1-7, that may be problematic (and there are already questions about quarterback Jonathon Crompton). We don’t know that these are going to be bad games, especially given that the CFL often features dramatic year-over-year turnarounds, but some of these certainly have some dud potential. Of course, as with the NFL, we’ve often seen solid ratings for bad games, so scheduling may not doom these, but it could play a role in how successful they prove to be.
Another potential issue on the ratings side is the particular teams involved. Much of the Alouettes’ local audience watches on French sister station RDS rather than TSN, so the ratings on TSN alone may suffer from so many Montreal games. The Redblacks also tended to have some of the weakest ratings last year, which doesn’t bode well either. Meanwhile, the CFL’s strongest team from an audience standpoint is always the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who aren’t making a single Thursday Night Football appearance this year, and the Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders (who usually draw strong numbers too) won’t be featured on this new broadcast either. We don’t know all the factors that went into the CFL’s schedule, so this may not be intentional at all, but the Thursday night games certainly don’t seem to have been set up to be guaranteed draws for TSN.
From the broadcasting side, though, there appear to be a few smart things at play here. For one thing, this new package runs during what’s often a very strong period for the CFL, from the season opener to Labour Day. While the league can compete head-to-head with the NFL and NHL, it often does even better during the summer months when it’s one of the few non-baseball sports still active. There seems to be rising interest in the NFL amongst Canadian viewers, too, making that NFL-CFL matchup more even than it’s been historically, so avoiding most direct overlaps with the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package may make some sense. (The CFL does have one Thursday night game after Labour Day, Montreal-Ottawa on Oct. 1, but it’s not part of this new Thursday Night Football package.) There’s also less competition from first-run non-sports TV during the summer, too. Beyond that, the extra features and social-focused segments should help differentiate these broadcasts, and they may help attract the younger demographic the CFL is trying hard to pull in. If nothing else, they may at least draw some viewers curious to see a different kind of CFL broadcast.
It’s tough to predict just how well this package will do in the ratings. On one hand, CFL games regularly provide some of Canada’s biggest audiences. We’ve also seen some Thursday games in previous years, and they tended to provide about average ratings, so it’s not like past data suggests the night is a must-avoid. Making it consistent for the first 10 weeks of the season may help, too. There are some potential pitfalls, though; five of the 10 games start at 7 p.m. Eastern, so before much of the West Coast even gets off work, the possible scheduling weaknesses could lead to some hard-to-watch games, and it may be that CFL fans are more willing to tune in to an occasional Thursday game than they are to tune in every week. We’ll see if the CFL’s foray into regular Thursday night games turns out as well as the NFL’s has (for the broadcasters, at least).