CFL blackout comes under criticism

The Thanksgiving clash between the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats was one of the most exciting CFL games this season. Too bad most of Southern Ontario was left in the dark.

The Argos won a 29-28 thriller in overtime broadcasted on CBC, but thanks to Hamilton owners imposing a television blackout, over five million viewers didn't get to see the two rivals go at it in a game with huge playoff implications.

According to league bylaws, a blackout is imposed within a 120-kilometre radius of the transmitter nearest to the stadium for conventional channels like CBC and a 56-km radius for cable channels, unless the home team decides to lift it.

The decision by Tiger-Cat ownership to invoke the blackout rule meant that viewers from St. Catherines to Oshawa and all points in between -- including Hamilton and Toronto -- didn't get to see the game.

But football fans and viewers weren't the only ones disappointed with Hamilton's decision.

"The whole story about blackouts is to increase the gate and get more fans at the stands. That said, we don't like them because we want to maximize the number of people watching the games," CBC Sports senior director Tony Agostini told Sports Online.

"We think television is excellent promotion for the game, which is what the CFL needs right now."

Skip Prince, president/CEO of the Montreal Alouettes and chairman of the TV committee, is currently working on a new TV contract for the league, and is trying to amend the blackout policy.

"I'm confident that we will reach a happy medium on the television blackout issue," Prince is quoted in Wednesday's Toronto Star. "The blackout will play a role in our negotiations on a new deal."

"It's a shame that so many people couldn't see a game like that," Prince told the Star. "What makes the situation harder to tolerate is when two teams are situated so close together."

A blackout is often invoked when a team believes the broadcast of a game could affect attendance. Monday's game drew 20, 000 to Ivor Wynne Stadium -- 8, 000 short of a sell-out.

Prince said that while a 120-km blackout area might work in Alberta, "the rule as it was originally designed appears to do more harm than good" in Southern Ontario.

Blackouts also build up bad-will with CFL fans.

Such was the case on Monday. Hamilton slotback Darren Flutie became the most prolific receiver in CFL history when he caught a 17-yard pass from Danny McManus late in the third quarter, breaking the all-time record held by Allen Pitts.

After Flutie's record-setting catch, the game was halted for a brief ceremony, as Ticats owners George Grant and David Macdonald honoured one of the league's great servants.

But because of the blackout, a lot of viewers didn't get the chance to celebrate and share in the moment of one the league's greatest players.

Aside from costing the league TV revenue, blackouts also cause public relations nightmares for broadcasters. The CBC fielded a flood of calls from irate football fans on Monday who thought they would be able to watch the game.

Because clubs sometimes lift the blackouts at the last minute, the CBC and other networks are often unable to announce that games will be blacked out in advance, incurring the wrath of viewers.

"Hamilton had the right to impose the blackout, so there's nothing we can do about it," explained Agostini.

"Had they decided to not invoke it, we have the technology to lift it and could have broadcasted the game at a moment's notice. But they had the right to do it, and we respect that right."

"It's at the clubs' discretion, so our hands are basically tied."