April 6, 2007 Toronto FC on television contracts (from Toronto Star) Tough test for Toronto FC on TV front

Apr 06, 2007 04:30 AM
Chris Zelkovich

Barring a miracle, Toronto FC's inaugural Major League Soccer game tomorrow night will be a ratings disaster.

But the club and its three broadcasters are almost certain that whatever the audience number is, it will stand forever as the team's low-water mark.

The game will be on at 10:30 p.m. on Rogers Sportsnet, a fact that surely comes as news for many.

Because team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. still hadn't officially announced its TV deals as of yesterday, there has been minimal promotion.

In fact, Sportsnet ran its first ads yesterday, barely more than 48 hours before the game. Not that a whole lot of people would have been watching at that time anyway, but these kinds of things usually get weeks of promotion to help build excitement.

That's not to say this city's first big-league soccer team in two decades will be at the bottom of the ratings list all season. By getting all of its games on TV, Toronto FC will be able to create a following.

"There's an entire generation of soccer fans that have had nothing to cheer for in Canada," says Sportsnet announcer Gerry Dobson, who will call tomorrow's game from Los Angeles with analyst Craig Forrest. "The national team hasn't been very good and (fans) are dying for a team to call their own."

That might sound like hype, but the fact is Toronto FC is all but guaranteed sellouts for every home game. Good ratings would likely follow.

"I expect we'll start out modest and build from there," says MLSE chief operating officer Tom Anselmi. "But I expected ticket sales to go that way, too, and look what happened."

The team cut off season-ticket sales at 14,000, a rush that was accelerated by the Los Angeles signing of David Beckham.

That addition has put the MLS on the television map. While the league's TV ratings make the NHL look like a winner in the U.S., Beckham's addition did produce the first broadcast rights in league history, to the tune of $20 million (U.S.) a season.

While a TV schedule has yet to be released, you can bet MLSE wants its Aug. 5 game on CBC in order to hit the greatest possible number of viewers. That's the day Beckham is likely to make his North American debut.

Until then, television will be trying to sell the players to fans.

"We won't be doing anything radical and we sure won't be trying to explain the game," says Dobson. "But we will be spending a lot of time introducing the players to the viewers."

Considering how few might be watching tomorrow, they may have to do that for some time.

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