The CFL continues to be a reliable ratings generator on broadcast television but Edmonton Elks’ president Victor Cui believes the league must diversify its approach to content if it wants to thrive.
“I think that it would be foolish to say that the world of sports is not massively gravitating to greater and greater online digital consumption,” Cui said in an extensive one-on-one interview with 3DownNation.
“Now, the opportunities to monetize that vary quite differently, even from province to province. As a league across the country, there are options for us. Other leagues around the world have figured out how to make traditional linear TV partnerships work with the proliferation of digital content, so there is a world where those two can come together.”
TSN, which is owned by Bell Media, has been the CFL’s exclusive rights holder since 2008. Their current deal runs through the 2026 season and is valued at approximately $50 million CAD annually, making them the league’s most important financial partner.
However, critics have argued that a lack of broadcast competition has created a stagnant product and prevented innovative avenues for growth, including holding them back from the streaming market.
“We’re not in a unique position. Many other sports properties were locked into a type of agreement that reflected the reality at that time that agreement was made, but technology changed so fast. Unless you’re able to revisit the terms of the agreement in real-time, it is difficult to adjust,” Cui acknowledged.
“We have a great partner with TSN for our content, they work really hard, and they also want to innovate. They want to see us succeed and so there’s a lot of things in that discussion that are being revisited for future years.”
Broadcast diversification has been a hot topic around the league following the sale of the Montreal Alouettes to Quebec telecommunications billionaire Pierre Karl Peladeau, who owns TVA Sports — the chief competitor for TSN’s francophone affiliate, RDS. While some believe a long-term bid for the French language broadcast rights could be in play, most fans are more concerned with future expansion onto digital platforms.
The CFL has streamed games internationally in the past but those wishing to watch via the internet in Canada are limited to paying for a subscription to TSN+, the company’s online offering. In an era when cable cord-cutting has become the norm and most major sports are on multiple platforms — both traditional and new-age media — that is viewed as a significant weakness for the league.
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie recently floated the idea of testing direct-to-consumer streaming options in the United States, but little has been done in the Canadian market for risk of interfering with Bell’s monopoly. Based on Cui’s decades of experience in sports business, he believes that expanded streaming options should actually be viewed as a positive for the broadcast partner.
“I would say that 10 years ago, a traditional television company viewed online live streaming as cannibalizing on traditional linear TV, like all this takes away our viewership,” he explained. “But data has shown over the last decade and a half that the opposite is true, that actually the two are complementary and when you watch TV, you want to augment it with a second screen experience.”
“In fact, when you deliver a second screen experience on your mobile phone, your iPad or your laptop, a percentage of those choose to migrate to traditional TV to engage in it even more. Actually, when you work together, it’s a win-win for all parties.”
Before taking the job with his hometown CFL team, Cui was the co-founder and CEO of MMA promotion company ONE Championship, which he built into one of the world’s largest sports media properties. Operating primarily in the Asian market, he was forced to stay on the cutting edge of digital trends in a culture that was even more reliant on mobile technology.
North America remains behind in that regard and the CFL more than most, but he sees tremendous growth potential for the league in the online space.
“The good thing about being behind other sports teams is we can look at their best practices, copy it and figure out what works for us,” Cui said. “If you look at the NBA, they lead all sports properties in the world in digital live streaming and that’s why today, the NBA as a league is one of the most dominant globally in the world.”
“F1 took a different approach. The average age of an F1 fan four or five years ago was 63 years old. They’re like, ‘How do we reach a younger demographic? Well, let’s do a Netflix show.’ Now, that seems like a given today — do a sports documentary, yeah, of course — but do you remember when they launched that? Think how crazy that proposition was.”
“Let’s do a show, multiple episodes on a sport where the average age of the fan base is 63 years old and we’re going to do each episode on a sporting event that’s already finished, you already know the results. Why would anybody watch it? But you can and you can get new fans. That shows that the traditional thought of ‘you only capture fans watching it live,’ because then the results are done and then nobody wants to watch it and there’s no more value in that content, is not true. You can find a way to extract great value even when the live sport is complete.”
The wildly successful series Formula 1: Drive to Survive helped renew interest in that sport and led to a massive spike in popularity. Several CFL teams have since attempted to emulate that formula with their own in-house, behind-the-scenes series but the league’s own efforts have been limited in scope, producing just a single one-hour TV documentary on the QEW rivalry between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts.
According to Cui, the CFL’s thought process must expand beyond just digital streaming to online content creation, maximizing value out of events that have already happened. With fewer consumers dedicating hours of their time to watch single events live, the league must find ways for engagement that aren’t TV ratings or standard viewership.
“The next magical piece that we have to figure out is how do we service fans with the right hit of sports content at the right frequency and the right length of it that is enough for them? There is no magic bullet to that,” he said.
“Some people want an infographic that they absorb in three seconds. Some people want a 30-second video, some people want a 90-second video. Luckily, today if you have your processes right, with one type of show and one type of filming and one strategy, you can produce 10 different versions that service all of those different audiences if you’re efficient enough.”
“You have to have put the right tools in place. You have to have the right automated processes in place; artificial intelligence and all these kinds of things are making this possible today that wasn’t there before. Now, our adoption rate on this technology is the question. Can we adapt fast enough so that we can get ahead of the curve before the next thing comes along?”
That has never been the league’s forte but Cui believes he is starting a positive change within the Elks organization. While the results on the field during his first year as president were disappointing, the team’s business operations have taken a leap forward with a focus on innovative marketing, fan engagement, and online content creation.
“I would make the argument that the Edmonton Elks are leading the way for all the teams in our production of digital content and storytelling. I think we are an absolute content juggernaut right now from our video production and it’s not like we Gen-Xed our staff,” Cui insisted. “We have implemented processes that I’ve built over the last 10 years and dropped that knowledge so we can be more efficient in what we’re doing and grow our digital side of the business.”
“As an example, our Facebook page grew by 140 percent this last year, the average growth of every other team in the league was below one percent. That’s specifically because I understand that space and I’ve spent and wasted a lot of money previously trying to figure that out. Now we have that advantage of not having to do that.”
That should be a lesson to the rest of the league. Templates on how to effectively attack the digital space already exist within other sports franchises, both foreign and domestic, if they would only look to them.
After years of inaction, the CFL can’t be leaders in the field until they follow in those footsteps.