The Canadian Football League signed an exclusive U.S. broadcast deal with ESPN last week, and it’s one that has impacts for both sides. For the CFL, this new five-year deal looks like a step up in terms of stability, exposure and consistency over previous one-year deals with NFL Network, NBC Sports Network and a NBCSN/ESPN split, and it sounds like the league also may have made a little bit of money off it (a change from most of their past U.S. deals).
For ESPN, this appears to be a much smaller deal at first; it gives them some low-cost summer programming for their networks and ESPN3 and potentially attracts a few college and NFL football fans bored of the offseason. However, the CFL going with them exclusively despite other offers (and for a similar number of live games as they had in a split-network package last year) reflects how dominant ESPN still is in the sports marketplace, and how much more valuable it can be for leagues to be aligned with them.
The CFL’s U.S. TV deals are always interesting, as they’re not particularly about money or viewership numbers, making them substantially different from your average TV deal. The money’s generally small or non-existent, and the viewership numbers aren’t going to be huge any time soon. What the league’s particularly interested in with its approach to U.S. television, more than attracting average fans (never a bad thing, but very few American fans are ever going to spend much money on the CFL), is getting on the radar for high school and college football players. The CFL may be the best non-NFL option out there right now in terms of salaries and team stability, and the amount of talent with impressive backgrounds that shows up to teams’ open tryouts reflects that. However, the league still doesn’t have a huge profile south of the border, and it wants to further establish itself as a pro football option players have heard of and are considering before they leave college. An ESPN deal is big on that front.
Keep in mind that despite the ever-increasing competition out there in sports broadcasting, with NBC, Fox and CBS all having cable sports channels in addition to regional sports networks and specific-league ones (NFL Network, MLB Network, the various college ones), ESPN is still the default sports option for many. That may be particularly true for athletes looking to see what’s going on in the sports world. This deal won’t instantly lead to huge CFL popularity, as only one of the already-announced games is on the Worldwide Leader’s main network (six others are on ESPN2, with one on ESPNews; there are going to be at least seven more regular-season games and the divisional finals televised live on ESPN networks, though). However, it’s not like ESPN2 is low in popularity, and it’s a lot easier for many to find than, say, NBCSN. (Try getting the NHL playoffs on in some American sports bars some time to see this in action.)
The minimum of 17 regular-season games televised live is a little lower than the 19 that were televised live last year (five on ESPN networks, 14 on NBCSN), but the East and West Finals will be televised live this year instead of tape-delayed, and the Grey Cup will continue to be televised live. So the deal’s about a wash in terms of raw numbers of games, but going (mostly) to ESPN2 sounds like a step up from having most on NBCSN in terms of potential audience and exposure. Being an ESPN exclusive property may help get some CFL presence into SportsCenter and other shows, too; it would be silly to expect too much here, but hey, SportsCenter featured a clip of Chad Johnson’s first catch (in the CFL preseason, no less!) recently, and if there are some crazy highlights, the CFL might crop up there again from time to time. Its chances would certainly seem higher now that it’s under the right corporate umbrella.
The consistency and stability matter for the CFL from another perspective. Beyond attracting new prospective players, the league wants a solid U.S. broadcasting deal so that American players’ families and friends can watch them in action; this tends to increase those players’ happiness and decrease their feelings of isolation (which can be a big deal when you’re playing in a foreign country away from your family), making them more likely to want to stay in the CFL for a while. Going to a consistent ESPN deal, with every game (televised or not) available on WatchESPN (previously, all games but the NBCSN ones were on ESPN3, but there was no effective way to stream the NBCSN ones), should make it easier for families and friends to follow the CFL, and that can be important. Plus, a five-year deal means we won’t see the U.S. deal announced after the season’s already started, which has often been the case recently.
For ESPN, this is a relatively minor deal in terms of the money spent (they’re just picking up feeds from TSN, which they own 20 percent of anyway, so there’s not a big cost here) and the programming gained, but it does give them some decent summer football content.
The CFL has been gaining more of a U.S. profile lately, too, with Peter King’s The MMQB devoting a whole week to it, so it’s possible a larger audience might eventually find it, and locking the rights up for five years would let ESPN dramatically benefit if the CFL does grow in popularity. However, the real takeaway here might be that leagues still want to be in business with the WorldWide Leader. That doesn’t mean they’ll grab everything, but it does mean that other networks are facing uphill battles when acquiring rights. If the terms are relatively similar, ESPN’s prominence and name recognition may well put them over the top.