TV monopolies and Canadian football


On Saturday November 25, the Canadian university football championship was held in Hamilton between the University of Western Ontario Mustangs and Laval Rouge et Or, with the former prevailing 39-17 . The Vanier Cup, attended by 10, 754 fans, was not broadcast on either CBC which featured an Alpine skiing race, an elite sport, or CTV, which featured the Hollywood doomsday movie Armageddon. Instead, it was relegated to TSN 3. (TSN is owned by Bell Media, with EPSN holding a 30 per cent share; Bell owns CTV.)

Sport in Canada has been commercialized, privatized, Americanized and colonized by private empires, reinforced by the sports media monopolies. To watch a Canadian championship, one has to be a cable TV subscriber. But even that is no guarantee. About ten years ago, CIS sports had to quietly pay the then Score TV cable channel $50,000 to come to Halifax to broadcast the semi-final and the final of the college basketball finals. (Score was later bought out by Rogers Sportsnet.)

Is it little wonder that the Vanier Cup is plagued by low attendance?

None of the big Toronto newspapers and, across Canada, most if not all daily newspapers report regularly on university sport, let alone amateur sport. The report on the match in the Sunday Toronto Star was reprinted from the Hamilton Spectator.

Once again the question of relevance was raised. Reporter Scott Radley writes, “One way or another, the game deserves to be seen. The past seven Vanier Cups have all been terrific. A couple have been even better than that. This one wasn’t as tense yet it was a clinic to appreciate.” His solution? To package it with the Grey Cup and hold it on the same weekend wherever in Canada it is being played.

In contrast, on Saturday three US networks – Fox, CBS and ABC – were broadcasting college games one after the other from noon to late evening. The Auburn University stadium alone was packed with 87,000 people. TV contracts rule American sports, including university sport. The NFL is in the middle of a $26 billion deal for TV rights.

Then there is the Grey Cup, the championship of the Canadian Football League (CFL) which was held in Ottawa as part of the colonial Confederation 150 “celebrations.” Opening the festivities on Tuesday, Prime Minister Trudeau proclaimed that the Grey Cup “brings the nation together.” The CFL cannot be said to be an instrument of nation building. After 105-years, this private sports empire still does not have a franchise east of Montreal (the Alouettes are the former Baltimore Stallions, owned by an American capitalist) in Atlantic Canada, yet it vainly tried to expand into the United States between 1993 and 1996. Doom was brought upon all the American CFL markets except Baltimore due to the CFL’s capitulation to U.S. franchise owners’ demands affecting the originality of the Canadian game.

Despite notable differences with the American game such as the size of the field and the football, placement of the goalposts, the number of downs, the rouge and offensive motion, CFL rules nevertheless refer to Canadian players in negative terms as “non imports.” According to the CFL website, the number of imports and the definition of a non-import in the CFL has undergone 32 significant changes since 1936. This in fact refers to residency and where a player has received his training, not just Canadian citizens; a quota system stipulates that teams are made up of 42 players, including three quarterbacks and 39 other players, of which 19 may be imports. A mere seven of the 24 starting players must be “non-imports,” with skill positions such as quarterback reserved for imports. American cadre overwhelmingly dominate management and coaching positions.

Once again, Canadians had to have a cable TV subscription to watch the match held in Ottawa on Sunday November 26 between the Calgary Stampeders and the Toronto Argonauts and/or the festivities in Ottawa. It was confined to TSN and Shaw, a corporate sponsor of the CFL.

“We are ambassadors of the NFL”

The big cable-TV sport monopolies are the main instrument for spearheading the marginalization of Canadian football.

It is worth remembering that Rogers Communications, owners of Sportsnet, the Toronto Blue Jays (“Canada’s team”)‚ and a majority co-owner with Bell Media of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE – owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors [“We the North”], TFC, Toronto Marlies, Air Canada Centre, operators of BMO Field, etc.) and the Buffalo Bills of the NFL signed a five-year deal in 2008 to bring one “home” game a year to the Rogers Centre in Toronto, along with three pre-season games (later reduced to two). The Rogers’ group included Larry Tanenbaum, minority owner and chairman of MLSE. Despite the manufactured hype, price-gouging and lacklustre attendance, the deal was renewed in January 2013 for another five years.

“Rogers Media is committed to producing and delivering premium sports content and experiences for fans,” said Keith Pelley, President, Rogers Media, at the time.  “We are ambassadors of the NFL and are continually assessing the market to bring that true NFL experience to Canadians.  We created a benchmark for our game last season with a first-rate pre-game festival and half-time show, and look forward to building on that over the next five years.”

The deal was suddenly terminated in March 2014. “Upon hearing the news of its death,” reported the Toronto Star, “fans rejoiced on social media.” When Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson died, Tannenbaum headed a new group that vainly attempted to buy the franchise with a reported offer of $1 billion with the aim of eventually moving it to Toronto.

MLSE now owns the Argonauts who have been moved from the Rogers Centre to BMO Field, assisted by a $10 million government pay-the-rich grant for stadium renovations.

Meanwhile on Sunday the CBC was broadcasting alpine skiing and . . . a bobsleigh competition.

CTV, which had already broadcast two NFL games in the afternoon, was showing “Football Night in America” – the Sunday night NFL game between two U.S. cities, Pittsburgh and Green Bay.



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