Gordon Craig – A Visionary and Broadcasting Pioneer

From humble beginnings in rural Manitoba, broadcasting pioneer Gordon Craig had an idea and a vision he was passionate about bringing to fruition.

As a teenager, Craig strived to get a proper education and find gainful employment.

When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) came to Manitoba in 1954, he was able to get a foot in the door through a family connection, and accepted a mailroom position.

From there, he was promoted from delivering mail to hanging lights in the studios to working the camera as part of the Canadian Football League (CFL) crew. It was here he decided that sports television was his true passion as he moved to Director, Producer and eventually to Toronto where he became the Head of Sports for CBC.

While with CBC, Craig planned and produced TV coverage for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and the Russia-Canada hockey tours in 1972 and 1974.

During the 1976 Olympics, Craig convinced senior management to cover the events 24/7, only breaking for news coverage, which eventually become the broadcasting standard for all future Olympic coverage in years to come.

In the early 1980s, Craig left CBC to pursue his dream. All he needed to do was find a company with deep pockets and a love of sports, and convince them that his idea would work in a country one-tenth the size of the U.S. with a relatively miniscule number of cabled homes. It was Peter Widdrington, then Chairman and CEO of Labatt, who gave him the chance. This turned out to be the “TSN Turning Point” for Craig to put the wheels in motion on his vision.

On September 1, 1984, TSN was born, with television sports coverage becoming immediately revolutionized in Canada. At first, TSN was a pay service, later moving to basic cable service.

Craig reminisced on that day very fondly, “We played the national anthem at noon Eastern. It’s the only time we played ‘O Canada,’ because we’ve never been off the air since.”

The Toronto Blue Jays signed to an exclusive package on TSN in 1984 and followed this up with a Montreal Expos package. TSN also supported the Special Olympics and provided coverage of the events.

From there, TSN proved to be a success, with the network gaining more than one million Canadian subscribers between 1984 and 1987. The Bureau of Broadcast Measurement found that more viewers watched TSN in the three-month period starting in January than any other pay-TV network.

When reflecting on TSN’s long-term success, Craig said there were two specific challenges facing him and his newly created network.

The first one was being able to televise NHL games and the second was having enough programming to keep Canadian viewers interested.

Craig acknowledged that you can’t be a Canadian sports network and not have hockey on your channel. With Craig’s network being owned by John Labatt Limited and the NHL television rights at that time owned by Molson Breweries, this made for some interesting negotiating obstacles early on.

After a series of meetings, Craig was able to get an agreement to begin with eight games as a starting point and over the years that number grew.

“Getting enough programming to satisfy the viewers…Looking back I think we were naïve about that. With a 24 hour schedule there was an enormous appetite for programming. With that commitment there was an enormous challenge to fill our schedules.”

In 1988, TSN became the first cable specialty service to cover the Olympic games, with 115 hours of coverage from Calgary. As a result of his success, Craig was considered as a possible replacement for Douglas Mitchell as the new commissioner of the CFL. Although he was not given the job, Craig was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in recognition of his corporate support.

In 2014, Craig was named to the Order of Canada for his “pioneering contributions to sports broadcasting and for his dedication to the Canadian television industry.” In 2020, Craig was named one of the 50 most influential Toronto sporting figures of the past 50 years by Steve Simmons.