Opinion: the CFL should be looking to expand national media rights beyond TSN

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

There was a time not too long ago when sports media pundits thought there would be a ceiling for how much companies would be willing to pay leagues for the right to broadcast their games.

It’s now 2022 and if there is one, that ceiling doesn’t appear to be nearing. Despite massive changes to the industry, media companies still have a strong desire for live sports.

In the last couple of years, two major college conferences — the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Big Ten — have signed landmark deals with broadcasters like ESPN, FOX, CBS, and NBC. Other conferences are expected to sign similar agreements in the coming months.

The NFL recently signed new deals with all of their broadcast partners as well, which included massive increases over what the networks were previously paying.

We’re still a few years away from the CFL potentially getting in on the action, as their current deal with TSN doesn’t expire until 2026. While none of us would expect the three-down league to be in that same financial stratosphere when their time comes, the trend suggests a fairly large increase should still be in order.

Based on CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s state of the league address last week, I think it’s safe to say it’s something that is on the league’s mind.

“We’re looking toward our media rights that expire at the end of 2026,” he said. “Everything that we’re focused on is how do we make sure we’re poised to harness the biggest global media rights opportunity when our current deal with TSN expires in 2026.”

Ambrosie did make it sound like an announcement could be coming in the not-too-distant future regarding an improved American media rights package, but he wasn’t able to go into much more detail than that.

Currently, games are broadcast on ESPN’s various platforms, mostly their streaming service ESPN+ with some games appearing on either the main network or ESPN2. It’s believed that ESPN is paying very little for those rights.

Ambrosie did suggest the new stateside deal will run until 2026, to align with the current TSN deal. What the league does in four years’ time will be far more interesting, however.

I believe the CFL acted far earlier than it had to when it signed its current contract with TSN during the 2019 season. The previous deal was set to expire at the end of the 2021 season.  In the end, the security was nice, but no one could have predicted the 2020 season wasn’t going to be played when that decision was being made.

The league would have been wise to let the process play out a little longer, putting some pressure on Bell Media to spend more to keep their exclusive rights or see what else might have been out there.

During his address, Ambrosie suggested a few times that people these days want access to content when and where they want it. He’s right. However, their current deal with TSN doesn’t exactly allow for that. Game content remains owned by TSN and their streaming options are lacklustre compared to others.

The league needs to get as many eyeballs as possible on their core product while also obtaining the most money for the right to broadcast it. While TSN has been a great partner for the league, the time has come for the league to expand its horizons.

The CFL not only needs more cooks in the kitchen to increase revenue but to create competition to make the broadcasts better. Frankly, TSN’s broadcast hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years.

Ambrosie was asked by 3DownNation’s Justin Dunk if the league would explore options outside of TSN — including airing some games on CTV in the meantime — when the current deal expires, but he more or less danced around the question.

An interesting wrinkle to this whole scenario is the NHL’s deal with Rogers is also set to expire in 2026. What goes down there could go a long way toward determining who might have an interest in the CFL outside of TSN. I believe that Rogers and Bell will end up sharing those rights, but that’s another story for another website.

If Ambrosie is serious about wanting the league’s content to be available in more ways for fans, then the league’s next media rights deal will have to look significantly different.

Putting your core product exclusively on cable with an uninspiring streaming option isn’t going to cut it. In a perfect world, the CFL should be seeking a mixture of traditional broadcast TV, cable, and streaming in their next deal.

Whether they land all three remains to be seen but it would be pivotal in making the league more attractive to casual fans — while increasing revenue at the same time.

Joel Gasson is a Regina-based sports writer, broadcaster and football fanatic. He is also a beer aficionado.