Why a Canadian Football League team joined a trend and took over their own radio rights

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RJ Broadhead was two hours and seven stories from kickoff, gazing down the Tim Hortons pitch turf from the home team’s play-by-play radio booth. He had all the essentials nearby, from his phone to his headphones to his production team and, most importantly, his binoculars.

He said he needed it the most just before the ball was broken and then when the tackle was made, just so he could see if the ball was squirting. He looked again: “I’ve heard from other play-by-play guys that it’s really at the top. »

Calling games for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was an adjustment for Broadhead, who previously spent 21 years at Sportsnet, but the whole room represented a change. It was officially designated “Radio Broadcast Booth 1” by the sign at the door, but no one inside was there to call a play for the radio.

The Canadian Football League franchise has joined an emerging trend of North American professional teams moving their terrestrial radio rights online. Fans who wanted to hear Hamilton and the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday night tuned into the Ticats audio network.

Their shows still air on traditional radio, but the Ticats own the rights, control production, and stream the game exclusively on their own platforms. It is part of a content network that also operates in podcast and video, totaling approximately 15 hours of listening per week.

The San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League pulled their radio rights to launch an audio network last year. In Los Angeles, the Kings had also switched to digital audio broadcasting. Hamilton is the first CFL team to transfer rights to an in-house digital operation. (TSN owns the television rights to the league.)

“I believe Hamilton is an underserved sports market,” said Louis Butko, a broadcaster working for the Ticats. “If we can give the fans something – a reason to talk about this team, and continue to give them reasons to talk about this team – I think that will translate. They will want to be here.

Hamilton is sandwiched between two NHL markets, Toronto and Buffalo, and the move to digital is also a response to the changing media landscape. The team’s games aired on TSN 1150 before the pandemic, but they were left without a home when Bell Media abruptly switched the station’s format to all-professional content last year. (He struggled to build a following in Hamilton, with the Globe and Mail reporting that he averaged just 23,600 listeners a week.)

The station shut down the all-sports format in February 2021.

The Ticats audio network aired its first game six months later.

“We’ve been pretty vocal about this idea of ​​producing our own games,” Ticats president Matt Afinec said. “We are committed to the long term.”

Hamilton hired Dave Cadeau, a former program manager at Sportsnet 590 The Fan, in Toronto, to help build the operation. Peter McKeown, another former Rogers Sports & Media executive, has also joined the team. In addition to play-by-play, the Ticats hosts a one-hour live pre-game show, as well as a halftime show and a 30-minute post-game show.

There’s more content throughout the week, ranging from lifestyle podcasts featuring alumni (safety Rob Hitchcock and slotback Mike Morreale) to granular football talk (“Ticats Today” , with Butko). Afinec said the team has a dozen contractors in its audio lineup.

Neither Afinec nor Cadeau would provide data on the size of the audience the team attracted to its content. The two said the numbers had increased since the project was launched last year. (Most of the most recent videos posted on the team’s official YouTube page only have a few dozen views, although this is just one of many digital platforms on which content is distributed. .)

“We’re excited about the numbers we’re seeing so far, as well as the circulation and reach we’re getting with our content,” Cadeau said. “But there’s definitely a lot of room to grow there and gain a new audience.”

On Thursday night, well-known Hamilton TV personality Clint (Bubba) O’Neil was positioned in a booth near a club-level pub inside the stadium. At halftime, he interviewed retired Ticats lineman Marwan Hage for the show.

Between performances, the audio feed directed all fans listening inside the stadium to Ticat-related products and initiatives, while corporate partners were integrated into the show. (A touchdown by the home team was “driven” by a rental car company.)

The team still allows its games to appear on local radio, including AM900 CHML, a brand inherited from Hamilton. The Ticats also appear on terrestrial radio in Kitchener and Guelph, as well as in Mississauga, which is a suburb usually more closely associated with Toronto.

Veteran Canadian broadcast executive John Shannon advised the Ticats as they explored the initial concept. In addition to having radio experience, he also served as Vice President of Programming at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment when the company launched two specialty channels in 2001, with Leafs TV and Raptors NBA TV.

“From a technology perspective, you no longer need everything Leafs TV had and the millions of dollars we invested in infrastructure,” Shannon said. “Technology has evolved in 20 years.”

According to Cadeau, other CFL teams have contacted the Ticats to inquire about the project.

“If I’m president of a sports team, I look at what the Tiger-Cats are doing and say, ‘Let’s keep an eye on that; let’s see where it works,” Shannon said. “We’re going to see that everywhere, I think, eventually.”

Broadhead has seen a lot of football. While still adjusting to the speed of the game in his second season behind the mic, he grew up outside of Saskatoon, where the Roughriders were the province’s only major team.

He covered the league during his time at Sportsnet, including the unusual summer of 2006, when Ricky Williams landed in Toronto while still under NFL suspension. Broadhead laughed, “We never missed a practice because you never knew what was going to be news.”

wide head announced that he was separating with Sportsnet in December.

“Sometimes you can be somewhere too long, and sometimes change is good,” he said. “And when an opportunity comes along that gives you a challenge – like calling football, which I’ve never done – it was too good to pass up.”

More than that, he said, “It rejuvenated my career, to be honest.”

(Photo: John E. Sokolowski/USA Today)

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