Another year and another Under-20 World Juniors. It’s staggering how the Canadian collective has embraced this event. If you think this tournament is solely staged to showcase the best young hockey talent in the world, think again. This is all about how TSN marketed and promoted this holiday hockey tournament, turning it from a nothing event on the international hockey schedule to a must see for all Canadians every year and a cash box for TSN, Hockey Canada and the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation).
It all started back in 1991 when TSN purchased the rights to broadcast the tournament. That first year they televised five games live. At the time, the event was a round robin affair and the stands were filled with family and friends - especially when the tournament was played in Europe, games were being watched in the stands by just a couple of hundred people. Yes, a couple of hundred - and that’s being generous. It was just another tournament on the IIHF annual schedule. Then the power of the media marketing machine began to heat up. Slowly, TSN began to broadcast more and more games live.
Over the years it morphed into a Canadian cultural phenomenon where the world juniors and Christmas/New Year’s became a holiday marriage. Today all 31 games are broadcast by TSN and they focus much of their resources on this single event. They have become such a juggernaut that 10 years ago they were awarded the rights to be the official broadcaster for all the other countries - they supply the feed to any other country or media company who wishes to broadcast the Under 20 World Juniors. This is regardless of whether the event that year is being played in Canada or any other country.
It can’t be denied that the raw passion from the teenaged players representing their various countries boosted by the marketing machine of TSN has created this hockey behemoth. Every year the world juniors garner viewer numbers that compete against Canada’s biggest sports properties such as the Grey Cup or Stanley Cup playoffs.
However, there is always a saturation point. The Under 20 World Juniors doesn’t draw nearly as well in other countries as it does in Canada. So for the IIHF to maximize the money potential, they decided a few years ago to allow Canada to host the event every second or third year. Add the hosting by the Americans who typically have the event in a northern city and thus attracting Canadians to buy tickets making it almost a pseudo Canadian event - this has resulted in a bit of Under 20 World Junior overkill.
Just look back at the previous two world juniors. In 2017, Toronto and Montreal co-hosted the event. Attendance was dismal, in part because of the high ticket prices and over-saturation. Then last year in Buffalo, organizers were shocked at how poorly the event was attended, especially the Canadian games where they were banking on Canadian fans from southern Ontario to fill the rink. Fortunately, our country is so large that most people on the West Coast wouldn’t fly out east to watch the juniors so this certainly helped with attendance for this year’s tournament in Vancouver and Victoria.
But you can only go to the well so often. As with any entertainment event, you need to create a sense of newness, of something special. It’s similar to when the Edmonton Oilers of the 80s were finishing first and winning all those Stanley Cups. As an Oilers fan at the time living in Edmonton, I can tell you that at first it was all new and exciting. After a few years, it became expected and quite frankly, a bit boring. Eventually, you didn’t get quite as excited as you used to. Hard to believe, but that’s how it felt.
And that’s what TSN, IIHF and Hockey Canada have to worry about, especially for the world juniors held in North America. The more times it’s played here and the more they keep the ticket prices high, the greater the chance you will alienate a part of your audience, both on TV and in the stands.