Thursday, April 02, 2009

It's not dead, Jim!

Reports of the death of fans' interest in the Toronto Maple Leafs have been exaggerated. Bob McCown and Jim Kelley spent the first 15 minutes or so of Prime Time Sports' 5:00-6:00 hour today discussing the idea that no one cares any more because the team isn't in playoff contention, and offered two major arguments as to why this was so; the Leafs' game story from last night was on the fifth page of the Toronto Star's sports section, and there have been less callers than usual who want to talk about the Leafs during their 4:00-5:00 call-in hour. This is a flawed analysis, however.

First, let's examine the placement of the story in the Star. I don't have the print edition handy, but you can see the listing of the stories in today's paper here, which is generally organized by importance. The top story is about hurdler Perdita Felicien's return to competition, which is a reasonably big deal; she's a well-known Olympic athlete and the Star is known for its Olympics coverage. Next is a large supply of Jays' stuff, including a story about Canadian pitcher Scott Richmond claiming the fifth spot in the rotation for the upcoming season; this is also quite interesting, has Canadian content, and is pretty newsworthy, so there's a good case for its importance. After that, story placement gets more subjective, but the next bunch of stories (a surprising Raptors' win, a steroids story, a women's hockey one and a few on athletes in trouble, plus a brief on cricket) all have arguments for their importance. It's not all importance, either; I know from my work with the Journal that story placement often comes down to factors such as length and packaging with similar content as well. The Star does have three different pieces on the Leafs (a game story from Kevin McGran, a column from Dave Feschuk), and a Brian Burke interview about roster changes from Paul Hunter), so it's not like they're ignoring the team. I don't think the placement of those stories really signifies that the Star's sports department thinks Leafs' fans have lost interest; if so, there's no way in hell they'd be running three different stories on the team.

Furthermore, Kelley made the point that game stories are becoming less relevant in the Internet age. I agree with him, but only to an extent; print game stories are less important these days because they're old news, but the online versions of those stories are still rather relevant. When reading the Star or The Globe and Mail online, Leafs' game stories are quite frequently among the most-viewed sports pieces on the site, demonstrating that there's still a considerable appetite for well-written pieces with what happened and players' and coaches' reactions, especially if they're available soon after the event.

This interest has also diversified, as there are far more places to get your news on the team than there ever used to be; in addition to all the newspaper sites, you have plenty of traffic to the CP and AP reports on games available at such sites as and Yahoo! Sports, and you have new and original takes from the blogosphere, which has a great variety of excellent Leafs' sites such as Pension Plan Puppets, Sports and the City and Down Goes Brown, to name just a few. At those sites, it seems interest in the team has only gone up. PPP sent me the link to his traffic numbers, which tell a very interesting story. His site has gone from 5,299 visits and 11,438 page views in March of last season (when the Leafs were still somewhat in the playoff hunt) to 37,655 visits and 122,933 page views this March, both of which appear to be site records.

Of course, there are other factors at play there as well; the evolution of SBN Hockey into a far larger and more formidable network ever since James Mirtle took the reins, the growth of the Leafs' blogosphere (blogs tend to be highly referential, so more bloggers on a topic tends to result in more exposure for prominent blogs on that topic like Pension Plan Puppets) and the site's own natural growth over that time period come to mind. Still, those numbers suggest to me that interest in the Leafs is holding steady at worst and growing at best.

The second idea to consider is McCown's argument that fewer of the callers into his show wanting to discuss the Leafs represents less interest in the Leafs. This seems flawed for a couple of reasons. For one, this is a pretty small sample size McCown is considering. For another thing, McCown's show goes head-to-head with Bill Watters over at AM640, and Chris Zelkovich of the Star reported today on his blog that Watters is increasing his market share against McCown. I haven't listened to Watters' show, but he's known as a hockey guy (he was even the Leafs' assistant general manager for a while). McCown, on the other hand, spends part of his time on hockey, but also frequently covers baseball, basketball, football and sports business stories, and his background is in baseball. Thus, it would seem likely that a higher percentage of the callers interested in the Leafs would migrate to Watters' show or to some of the other more hockey-focused shows in the Toronto area (examples include AM 640's Leafs Lunch or the FAN's HockeyCentral at Noon), while McCown's callers might be interested in the sports he covers that others don't focus on.

Call-in radio is another medium that's changing, though. It used to be that sports talk radio was one of the only places where fans could express their opinions. That certainly isn't the case any more. You can now comment on any of the newspaper stories on games, or talk about the game on any of the legions of hockey forums or message boards, many of which are Leafs-specific. You can visit any of the multitude of Leafs' blogs and comment on the game there, and if you go to a site like Pension Plan Puppets, you can even create your own FanPosts if you have the time and inclination to do so. You can talk about the game with friends over e-mail or instant messaging, or relay your feelings on it to the world via Twitter, Facebook status updates or a variety of other options. You can create your own Leafs-focused mini-blog at sites like Bleacher Report or, share your thoughts through a Tumblr site, or start your own blog through Blogger or WordPress if you're feeling really ambitious. Suffice it to say that call-in radio no longer has a monopoly as an outlet for fans. In fact, waiting on hold for 10+ minutes on the hope that the host deigns to take your call sounds less and less attractive in our modern age, where everything else is available instantly and at your fingertips.

I'm not going to draw any definite conclusions about the state of current broad-based interest in the Leafs, as that's beyond the scope of this analysis. My main point is that McCown chose poor examples to support his argument that people no longer care; I'll leave an in-depth evaluation of that argument's merits to others. As mentioned above, there are several metrics that would suggest that fan interest is still reasonably strong, though. Zelkovich also reports that over a million viewers bothered to tune into the Leafs' Hockey Night in Canada broadcast last week, which would suggest that plenty of people still care. Many hardcore fans are likely still following the team to evaluate their young players and develop ideas about the team's future moves. There is a good chance that some of the bandwagon fans who only care about the team when they're doing well aren't actively following them at the moment, but the Leafs seem to still be the top team in Toronto and one of the top draws in the country. Brian Burke and co. don't appear to have anything to fear from declining fan interest, regardless of what McCown claims.


  1. You raise an interesting point here. We've got old school media folks telling us that people must be less interested in the Leafs because that's what their own anecdotal experience tells them. It doesn't seem to occur to them that maybe people aren't less interested in the Leafs, but rather just less interested in them, and getting their fix somewhere else.

    P.S. Thanks for the link.

  2. I think you nailed it there; it seems to be not so much of a decline in interest so much as a redistribution of the expression of that interest. However, those kind of subtleties don't make for good talk radio, which is probably why McCown took the tack he did.

  3. I listen to McCowen and it's not the first time he has brought that up. You correctly state that he's not looking for the fans in the right places. And the true beleivers are listening to Watters more I think.Watters co-host is a complete homer and has drawn in the fans who party on yonge street after palyoff game wins. I personally dislike both of them.

    I don't bother calling in as I have better things to do like drive home and read Leaf Blogs like many of the ones you linked to.

    We are still out here. We just don't call Bob.

  4. Great post, Andrew. And, you're right. In terms of traffic, March was the busiest month ever at Sports And The City.

    Thanks for the link, and keep up the great writing. You're a machine.

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys; glad to see that I might not be completely off-base on this one. I just think it's somewhat silly of any media type to judge the interest in a topic based on response to their own comments on it; that would be akin to me arguing that the panelists on our EPL discussion are the only people interested in English soccer! It's important to take everything else, including other sources of information/commentary on a particular sport, into context.