The Toronto Raptors advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in their 24-year history as they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday night, winning the Eastern Conference Finals four games to two. They now play the defending champion Golden State Warriors Thursday night.
But while American viewers can watch the NBA Finals on ABC, it’s a different story for Canadian viewers. In fact, they might want to consult TV Guide to find out what game the channel is actually on.
That’s because the NBA deal with the Raptors in Canada is very, very complicated.
In Canada, there is no over-the-air broadcast partner for Raptors games, local or national. When the team entered the league in 1995 with the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies, private broadcaster CTV became the teams’ first national broadcast partner. Global and the CBC have also aired Raptors games in the past.
But in recent years, the Raptors have been regulated to cable TV even as the team has grown more successful. In an unusual deal, Raptors games are aired on numerous multiple networks.
That’s because the team’s television rights are owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Raptors and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is majority owned by Canadian media conglomerates Bell Media and Rogers Communications. Bell owns CTV, cable sports network TSN and French-language equivlant RDS; Rogers owns broadcaster CityTV and SportsNet, the latter formerly owned by CTV – meaning the rights to Raptors games are split between TSN and SportsNet, with each carrying 41 regular-season games.
And so, the Raptors’ NBA Finals telecasts are being split with games one, three, five, and seven airing on SportsNet; games two, four, and six air on TSN. Moreover, the odd-numbered games aren’t airing on the regular SportsNet channel because of conflicts with Toronto Blue Jays games, but on SportsNet One a “category C digital cable and satellite specialty channel” as defined by the CRTC, available only in six million homes. However, SportsNet does plan to make the games available to viewers on its regional sports channels in the East (Quebec eastward), Ontario, West, and Pacific regions.
Split networks for a major seven-game sporting event isn’t new: in 1995, both ABC and NBC wound up splitting the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians as part of the disaster known as The Baseball Network, a joint consortium of the two networks and Major League Baseball which lasted only two years. In the first year of the deal, the 1994 strike wiped out the playoffs and World Series, forcing the two networks to share the 1995 fall classic in a move that wasn’t well received.
For non-cable or satellite Toronto-area viewers – or for those who can’t keep up with where the game is on every night, residents can still access the games through a very strong over-the-air antenna to pick up Buffalo ABC affiliate WKBW as the market lies directly across Lake Ontario as both cities can pick up each other’s TV signals. WKBW is also carried over some Toronto cable systems, but is being replaced by either TSN or SportsNet’s feed because of Canada’s sim-sub rules.
As for American ratings, the perception of a Canadian team in the finals could be a ratings disaster in the minds of some, given the weak numbers the World Series put up in 1992 and 1993 when the Blue Jays were in as Canadian ratings don’t count in the U.S. But Golden State are the defending champions, and while ratings are likely to be down – more due to the Golden State fatigue factor than anything else (and no LeBron), the 2019 NBA Finals aren’t going to be the ratings disaster some pundits are making it out to be. Plus, the presence of Raptors superfan Drake (a well-known Toronto-born recording artist) and the amazing play of Kawhil Lenoard may be enough to keep even casual viewers tuned in.
You can look for my ratings predictions in the Programming Insider sometime later this week.
In an update to this story, Rogers’ over-the-air CityTV and Bell’s CTV 2 have agreed to air NBA Finals games, making it accessible to more Canadians.