The CFL’s new American TV deal with CBS is an interesting risk/reward proposition

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The CFL’s long-awaited new American television contract has finally been revealed — well, some of it.

The league announced a new multi-year deal on Thursday that will see the three-down game broadcast on CBS Sports Network in the United States. The move is a significant departure for the league after appearing on ESPN and its various outlets for quite some time.

On paper, the move may seem good for the CFL and it ultimately might be. Still, there’s a fair amount of risk involved in removing content from the powerhouse of American sports broadcasting for a network that is far less available, and frankly, pretty irrelevant to a large swath of U.S. sports fans.

I say this as someone who has spent more time than most Americans watching CBS Sports Network, as a fan of some teams that play in the NCAA’s Mountain West conference.

As Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing points out, CBS Sports Network is not Neilsen rated, so it’s hard to say for sure just how many people watch and how many homes are subscribed. Since the channel generally isn’t available on basic packages through cable or online providers, it’s safe to assume that the number is smaller than even some of ESPN’s less popular channels.

We may never know the ratings these games produce, but in all likelihood, fewer Americans will be watching the CFL in 2023 than in past years on ESPN, which isn’t ideal.

The games available on linear ESPN channels generally did around 100,000 to 200,000 viewers.  Those numbers are hardly earth-shattering but they do suggest a pretty good return on investment for Disney, which 3DownNation has reported paid less than $200,000 a year for access to every game. Essentially free content for the worldwide leader in sports.

This is where the deal does improve for the CFL. CBS is reportedly paying $1 million dollars a year for the right to broadcast just 34 of the league’s games in 2023 and that does not include the playoffs or the Grey Cup. Each team will take in about $100,000 from the deal, and while that money is unlikely to make a huge difference to anyone’s bottom line, it is a number that is significantly higher than what they got last year.

The CFL has also landed itself a partner that has committed to promoting the games. How much and where? We don’t know, but ESPN just aired games and didn’t put any energy into advertising the product. It was treated as the filler it was. More promotion in the right places, and not just on a network few watch, could help grow the product.

If things go well enough for the CFL with their new partner, they may be able to increase the value of their rights by another five to ten times in a few years. Then we’ll be talking about money that could start to make a difference. The league also has a chance to increase its revenue further with another deal for the rest of its games this year, including its biggest games of the year. Will it be significantly higher? Probably not, but more money could still be coming.

The league has also been considering creating a streaming package for Americans, which is probably the less ideal and lucrative path to take, but an option available to them nonetheless.

It’s not lost on this contributor that the CFL appears willing to do everything Canadian fans wish the league would do from a broadcast perspective in its home country in the United States, with multiple broadcast partners and/or a streaming service. But that’s an issue for another article.

The CFL has left the comfortable confines of the ESPN family, giving up a larger reach in hopes of growing its bottom line. Only time will tell if it was a risk worth taking.

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