There’s a long history of big U.S. names coming to the Canadian Football League and drawing some initial attention, but failing to make a lasting impact, from Vince Ferragamo to Eric Crouch to Ricky Williams (whose time in Toronto was actually better than many regularly argue, but still wasn’t dominant there), Colt Brennan, Troy Smith, Michael Sam and Vince Young. And the Johnny Manziel experiment may still end that way; while there are some promising elements with him, including his age, his accuracy in college and a high-mobility scrambling style that’s worked for many other CFL quarterbacks, he’s far from guaranteed to become a CFL star or even a CFL starter, much less find a way back to the NFL. However, it’s notable that through just one preseason game last week (where he came off the bench and completed nine of 12 passes for 80 yards), he’s already provided a significant ratings bump, and broadcasting schedules both north and south of the border have now been rearranged to feature his next preseason game.
First, that ratings bump. As Drew Edwards writes at 3 Down Nation, last Friday’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats – Toronto Argonauts game drew impressive numbers in Canada:
Almost 310,000 viewers tuned in to TSN to watch the former Heisman Trophy winner make his CFL debut last Friday, making it the most-watched pre-season game thus far. Manziel went 9-of-11 for 80 yards – there was a string of five straight completions – and carried the ball two times for 10 yards in roughly a quarter of play. The Ticats lost 36-18.
As Edwards notes, that’s not completely outside of other CFL preseason numbers. In fact, the May 27 Saskatchewan Roughriders-Edmonton Eskimos game averaged 305,000 viewers. However, that was the league’s first preseason game, and it featured two teams that are often very good CFL TV draws, with the Roughriders in particular usually drawing the league’s best audiences. Despite the long-running rivalry between the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats, their games usually don’t do quite as well (especially when we’re talking preseason and not the Labour Day Classic), so there would seem to be a Manziel bump here.
And it’s notable that the Montreal Alouettes-Ottawa Redblacks game last Thursday only drew 107,000 viewers, although that comes with major caveats. That’s English-language only and does not count French-language viewers on RDS (and both teams have major Francophone fanbases), it wasn’t on the main TSN network, and it went head-to-head with a NBA Finals game. Still, it’s safe to say that Manziel brought in at least some viewers, and that explains why TSN is rearranging their broadcast schedule to add Hamilton’s final preseason game (where Manziel may play a bigger role):
TSN has added Saturday’s matchup between the Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats to its broadcast schedule, it was announced Monday.
…While the Alouettes’ duel for first-string quarterback continues — with Drew Willy and Matthew Shiltz in contention for the starting job — there’s a chance Johnny Manziel will start for the Ticats as regular starter Jeremiah Masoli is expected to sit.
South of the border, that game (noon Eastern Saturday) has also been added to the ESPN+ schedule. And while that’s an easy decision for ESPN to make (they have U.S. rights to all games, and tend to pick up whatever games TSN covers, including the whole regular season and playoffs and some preseason games), it could be a particularly beneficial game for them to have to encourage people to try out ESPN+ (which is going to have a whole lot of CFL games this year, disappointing for fans used to getting those games for free with a cable subscription on ESPN3, but a nice potential revenue source for the company). There’s a fair amount of U.S. interest in Manziel still, and people checked out his Spring League showings on B/R Live; they may check out ESPN+ as well, especially as it comes with a seven-day free trial.
What will Manziel’s presence mean for the league in the longer term? Well, a lot depends on if he’ll really get a chance to play. Adapting to quarterback in the CFL is incredibly hard given the rule changes (most notably, 12-on-12 play, which changes routes and coverage significantly, but also three downs and a bigger field), and most successful CFL quarterbacks have apprenticed as backups for a year or two. And it’s tough to imagine a ton of interest in watching Manziel’s games if he’s just sitting on the bench, and even head coach June Jones (yes, the former SMU and Hawaii coach) has said he anticipates Manziel as his backup this year.
But there is a potential opportunity for Manziel, as while Masoli’s found some success, he isn’t one of the league’s more established starters. And given Manziel’s profile and the attention paid to him, the Tiger-Cats could easily face some pressure to play him if they get off to a rocky start. If he does get to play and does do well, that might lead to some sustained further interest in the CFL, both north and south of the border. The league’s about much more than one player, and Manziel isn’t even really that much of a notable story for CFL fans at the moment given his backup role, but he does seem to be attracting some interest from casual fans, and that’s led to both ratings boosts and to coverage decisions changing. We’ll see if that continues as the year progresses, but there definitely does seem to be a good level of interest in Manziel so far.