The multi-year deal ESPN signed to be the exclusive U.S. broadcaster of the Canadian Football League last June appears to have worked out for them so far, as the network’s upping its CFL content on both television and streaming platforms for 2015. ESPN announced the numbers of games it will air and the first part of its CFL schedule Wednesday, and the numbers are a significant increase over last year. That suggests the CFL is providing useful content for ESPN, especially as a decent form of football during the summer months before the start of the NFL and NCAA seasons. As ESPN senior vice-president (programming acquisitions) Burke Magnus said last summer, this is all part of providing year-round content for football fans:
“Since the early days of ESPN, CFL games have been a valued part of our programming lineup,” said Burke Magnus, Senior Vice President, Programming Acquisitions. “I’m proud to see our relationship continue as we strive to serve football fans 365 days a year.”
In 2015, there will be 20 CFL games televised on ESPN channels as well as streamed via WatchESPN, plus another 69 available exclusively through WatchESPN’s ESPN3. That’s a total of 89 games, including all 81 regular-season games, four playoff games, the Grey Cup championship game, and three preseason games. Last year saw 17 games televised and the rest of the regular season and playoffs (69 games) streamed, but streaming preseason games is new. It’s notable that many preseason games aren’t even televised in Canada; broadcaster TSN is only airing six of the nine games. Having some of those games shown south of the border is a step forward for the CFL.
The CFL and ESPN relationship seems to be working for both parties. It’s very low-cost programming for ESPN, as they’re only taking the TSN feeds (remember, ESPN owns 20 per cent of TSN) rather than sending their own announcers and crews the way they did during the 1990s (when CFL broadcasts featured the likes of Gus Johnson and Mike Mayock). The ability to offer comprehensive CFL coverage with their streaming service while only airing some of the games on actual television also works out for ESPN; it lets them run the CFL when it works for them from a programming and ratings standpoint (mostly in the summer) without committing to air it at awkward times when other programming might draw better numbers, and it lets them largely avoid complaints from U.S. CFL fans because the games not aired on television are still streamed. Having the CFL be an exclusive ESPN property (which only started last year; previous deals had seen CFL games shown on the NFL Network and NBC Sports Network as well), and one signed to a multi-year deal, also gives the network incentive to promote the league.
For the CFL, this isn’t a deal about money. They’re probably not getting much, if anything, in the way of cash here, and they’re certainly getting nothing close to the massive Canadian deal they have with TSN (estimated to be about $36 million Canadian annually, and recently renewed for another year). They are getting decent U.S. exposure, though, and while that exposure is nice to gain fans, that’s not its primary goal. The league is focused on two key areas with its U.S. TV deals; keeping current American players happy (by making it easy for their friends and family at home to watch them) and attracting new American players (if talented college players see the product on TV and are impressed with its quality, they’re more likely to explore CFL options if the NFL doesn’t work out for them). All of the CFL’s recent TV deals have accomplished those goals to some extent, but the ESPN one might be the best one, especially now that the numbers of broadcast and streamed games are rising. Exclusivity also benefits the CFL; it’s easy for them to tell American fans that every game is on ESPN3 at the very least, compared to the mishmash of broadcast options that took place under the shared NBCSN/ESPN deal. There are advantages to working with the Worldwide Leader, and it’s something that seems to be paying off for the CFL so far.