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Intentional Grounding: CFL coverage to take hit with fewer reporters on the road

When sports writer Darrell Davis was on the Saskatchewan Roughriders beat in his early days at the Regina Leader-Post, he felt like he was “on top of the world” as a journalist.

When sports writer Darrell Davis was on the Saskatchewan Roughriders beat in his early days at the Regina Leader-Post, he felt like he was “on top of the world” as a journalist.

“It was a small newspaper but the Roughriders were so important, we went to everything,” he said. “I went to every Roughrider game: pre-season, post-season, even if the Riders weren’t in the post-season, the Leader-Post would send me to the Western Division playoffs and the Grey Cup.

“I was at every draft. I was at every CFL off-season meeting.”

Regular travel and wall-to-wall coverage is far from the current norm on the Canadian football scene.

Traditional news outlet coverage of the league’s nine teams is nowhere near as robust due in part to shrinking newsrooms, trimmed budgets and changes across the media landscape. Even Grey Cup week, a century-old tradition of sporting Canadians, has seen dwindling numbers of on-site reporters.

And the worst may be yet to come.

Unlike last season, only one major daily newspaper — the Winnipeg Free Press — is currently planning to staff road games for the 2023 campaign, said Football Reporters of Canada president Jeff Hamilton.

“This is next level, this is beyond,” said Hamilton, who covers the Blue Bombers for the Free Press.

Several major-market outlets have cut back on CFL coverage in recent years as sports sections have thinned.

The big change this year is that reporters from Postmedia, whose publications include several Sun newspapers, the National Post, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen and others, are not expected to travel to road games.

Newspaper conglomerates, including Postmedia, have struggled in recent years with dropping subscriber numbers and revenue losses. Postmedia has closed some smaller newspapers, reduced print production and resorted to layoffs and voluntary buyouts to manage costs.

Travel cutbacks and coverage concerns were raised on a recent FRC conference call, Hamilton said, adding talks on the subjects were ongoing between the CFL and the group, which has about a dozen Postmedia reporters among its 40-odd members.

“One of the things that we’re trying to establish as a group is almost a floor of what expectations would be and I think that’s a moving line,” Hamilton said, noting some CFL markets have different media needs.

While coverage has decreased, so has attendance at CFL games.

The average attendance for regular-season games in 2022 was 21,744 fans, which represents a 29-per-cent drop from the 29,190 average in 2012.

Television ratings for their league’s biggest spectacle have also dropped significantly in the last decade.

Last November’s Grey Cup broadcast — featuring the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers — drew an average audience of 3.121 million on TSN. Meanwhile, the 2012 Grey Cup — between the Argos and Calgary Stampeders — carried an average television audience of 5.5 million viewers.

Postmedia has not sent hockey writers to NHL playoff road games involving Canadian teams so far this spring. Reporters have instead reverted to pandemic-style remote coverage when games were in the United States.

It’s unclear what might be in the works for CFL coverage. A message left with a Postmedia spokeswoman was not returned.

Unlike the NHL, the CFL is entirely based in Canada and Postmedia has major newspapers in almost every league market. Zoom calls and teleconferences are more common in the CFL, which could help with remote coverage.

Hamilton said he expects some outlets will try to boost content by providing shorter nugget-style items but that deeper, richer storytelling that many CFL enthusiasts crave will be in short supply.

“I don’t think you can argue that the coverage is going to get better when you’re not on the ground,” he said.

More analytical stories could also become the norm for those working remotely. Postmedia outlets often share material, so a home team reporter could write for a road team’s audience despite not being on that club’s beat.

Hamilton said the list of benefits to being on site is a long one. They include developing relationships, cultivating sources, watching things you can’t see on TV, and generating material from one-on-one interviews, he added.

“There’s all these advantages,” Hamilton said. “So the question is what’s lost here (for) fans? It’s better coverage and more in-depth coverage.”

CFL locker rooms will be open to reporters this season for the first time since the start of the pandemic and no COVID-19 restrictions will be in place, a league spokesman said in an email.

“Mainstream media is still the most honest reflection you’re going to get of the Canadian Football League,” Davis said. “To have fewer people covering it (on site), you’re not getting the real story on what the Saskatchewan Roughriders are doing (for example). I think that hurts the fans.

“The fans know when something is going well or something isn’t going well and they’d like to read about it.”

The CFL pre-season schedule begins May 22. The regular season kicks off June 8.

Davis, a Canadian Football Hall of Famer who spent 25 years at the Leader-Post, recently returned to the Postmedia-owned newspaper to write a weekly freelance sports column.

“Covering sports is basically writing features with a score put in quite often,” he said. “The most important thing about sports and the reason people pay attention to it, I think, and really love it, is because of the personalities in the locker room.

“If you don’t get in the locker room as a reporter, you don’t get to find out who these personalities are and what they’re like.”