Fewer fans watching Maple Leafs on TV

TORONTO -

The notion that long-suffering Maple Leafs fans will put up with and blindly support poor and uninspired play finally could be starting to crack.

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Those who have regularly tuned in to watch the country's most popular NHL team on Saturday nights essentially since Hockey Night In Canada was created, may be starting to lose interest.

And from that perspective, a team owned by a pair of Canadian telecommunications giants, which bought the franchise in part for the valuable programming and big TV ratings it would provide, at some level could now be wondering what they got themselves into.

The most recent debacle in a season full of them -- a 6-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday -- attracted an average audience of just 743,000 on CBC's Hockey Night In Canada.

One Saturday night won't create panic among TV executives, but at the very least there should be concern.

How concerned?

Those familiar with the sports-broadcasting industry in this country were wondering Monday whether Saturday's was the lowest number the Leafs have drawn on a Saturday night under the current ratings system.

"I couldn't believe how low it was when I saw it," one industry insider said.

"It has to be a record low."

Fair to wonder, then, how much angst executives at Rogers and Bell -- the majority owners of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment -- now have about what is normally money-in-the-bank programming.

First, some perspective. Saturday night's rating would have been hurt by the fact the game was headed for a blowout in the first period and that the Leafs didn't manage their first shot on net until 11 minutes into the game.

At that point, who could have blamed frustrated viewers for tuning elsewhere on a busy sports night?

With the effort most nights often lacking in enthusiasm and the team out of the playoff race for so long, interest in the Leafs seems to be higher in the off-ice shenanigans and activity than the remaining 15 games.

Another factor in the diminished rating could be with Rogers' plan of attack for Saturday nights in this its first of a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal.

Competing against the CBC telecast was the Canadiens-Coyotes game, which drew 603,000 on City-TV and the Jets-Predators, which had 355,000 on Sportsnet.

When Hockey Night In Canada was the property of CBC, those games would have been split regionally.

On Saturday, viewers in most parts of the country had access to all three telecasts.

The first year has been a learning curve for Rogers as it deals with an ambitious schedule. Publicly, anyway, there is no panic.

"The Leaf rating is not unexpected based on the game and the standings," Scott Moore, the Rogers executive in charge of Sports­net and NHL properties, said via email on Monday.

"Frankly, I have been happy that the ratings on Saturdays have been as strong as they have in the last few weeks."

Given that the Leafs have traditionally been the ratings engine on Saturday nights, routinely drawing well over a million viewers on their own, the numbers could be better, of course.

But when a game gets out of hand early -- the Leafs are third in the league in losses by three goals or more (17) -- it doesn't help.

Interestingly, the Toronto FC season opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps -- a portion of which was head-to-head against the Leafs telecast on Saturday -- drew 353,000 on TSN, the most-watched MLS game in the network's history.

"Even the TFC got more than 50% of the Leaf rating and head-to-head in the same time slot," an advertising executive familiar with the Canadian sports broadcasting landscape said.

"That would have been unthinkable not long ago. Curling is the big weekend winner by a large margin, it seems."

Indeed, Sunday night's Brier final drew a solid viewership of 1.25 million viewers, a 40% increase over the previous year.

The Brier semifinal between Brad Gushue and Pat Simmons on Saturday had an audience of 896,000, easily surpassing the Leafs-Blues number.

The good news is that it's possible the most recent Leafs rating will stand as the season Saturday night low, given what remains on the schedule.

The next three Saturdays, at least, have Canadian-based teams to bolster the audience -- Vancouver and Ottawa twice -- and are followed by big ratings draws, Boston and Montreal.

There is no immediate liability for Rogers, with ad money for this season already cashed and in the bank.

But if the numbers continue to decline or flatline, the future may not be so rosy.

Which brings us to the matter of the great rebuild in progress.

Presumably, such a project would have been signed off by the MLSE board of directors.

Given that the board is heavily composed of executives looking for big ratings to attract the advertising revenue that keeps shareholders smiling, one wonders how patient it will be if Saturday's ratings are only the beginning.



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