Many sports leagues, including MLB and the NHL, have come up with packages of streaming games that can be purchased without any sort of cable or satellite TV subscription, but the Canadian Football League is unlikely to join that group any time soon. Every CFL game is streamed through TSN Go in Canada and WatchESPN in the United States, but those services require a login from a cable or satellite provider, and TSN spokesman Greg McIsaac told Mark Melnychuk of The Regina Leader-Post this week that TSN (which owns the CFL’s radio and digital rights in Canada as well as its TV rights, and has those rights through 2021) has no plans to develop an over-the-top standalone streaming service any time soon:
There are no current plans for an over-the-top subscription streaming service for CFL, or any of our sports properties,” Greg McIsaac, director of communications for TSN and Bell Media Sports, wrote in an email.
“TSN subscribers can access live streaming of all CFL games on TSN.ca and TSN GO at no additional charge – something we’ve offered CFL fans the past two seasons with great success,” continued McIsaac.
Of course, in order to use TSN GO, viewers are required to have a cable subscription, and have TSN in their cable package.
For the CFL, this probably makes a fair bit of sense, especially in Canada. TSN is likely paying the league far more money for the inclusion of their digital rights than the CFL would get if they just sold TSN TV and radio and tried to sell their own streaming rights over the top. Thus, any streaming plan would have to go through TSN, and TSN at this point doesn’t seem to be interested in doing something separate from their traditional cable model. (Which has advantages; yes, they’re potentially losing some over-the-top revenue, but they’re also convincing people to hang on to and/or buy cable, keeping their subscriber fees strong.) Also, a concern with the TSN Go streaming at the start was that it was only available through Bell and Rogers, leaving those with other cable companies in the dust. TSN Go’s now available on other big companies like Shaw, though, so while its coverage is far from perfect, it is an option for more people than it was in the past. There are undoubtedly still plenty of Canadians who would rather buy just a legal CFL streaming package rather than a full cable package, but that doesn’t seem to be in TSN’s plans at this point.
Moreover, a big difference between the CFL and say, the NHL (whose streaming rights are owned by Rogers, Bell/TSN’s big rival, and are available over-the-top) is the number of games. Even with the numbers of NHL games Rogers is showing across its platforms, there are tons of games that aren’t aired on conventional TV, and there’s plenty of incentive for a fan of a particular team to buy all their team’s games. Streaming is often complementary to the televised offerings, not duplicating what’s already there. By contrast, there are only four CFL games a week, and they all air on TSN. Thus, increased streaming may mean lowered TV watching. The TV audience is still the more important number for TSN, so they don’t have huge incentive to try and come up with a separate over-the-top streaming solution.
What about in the U.S.? ESPN (which owns 20 per cent of TSN) holds the CFL streaming rights in the U.S. and streams all regular-season and playoff games (both those broadcast on ESPN TV channels and the other games that are only available via streaming) through WatchESPN, and they have a multiyear deal with the CFL, so any sort of American streaming service would go through them. Of course, there are some services like Dish’s SlingTV that offer access to ESPN and WatchESPN without a conventional cable subscription. There has also been some discussion of ESPN potentially developing an over-the-top service so that those without cable could buy WatchESPN access separately (they did this for this year’s Cricket World Cup, but haven’t for anything else), and that might be a way for ESPN to combat cord-cutting. Still, any CFL streaming in the U.S. would likely be about a larger ESPN/WatchESPN deal, not a CFL-specific deal.
It’s the fans in other countries that could probably most use over-the-top CFL streaming, as they often don’t have access to TSN Go or WatchESPN. About 100,000 fans from 44 countries tuned in for the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ free preseason stream (of a game that wasn’t televised on TSN) this year, and while the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ free preseason stream drew a lower audience of 10,872, it also saw a substantial international audience. Those international fans don’t represent huge numbers, though, and at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any clear way or any large amount of passion to find something that works for them.
For the moment, the CFL’s likely still just going to be streamed through TSN Go and WatchESPN, and it’s likely to require a cable subscription. That could change down the road, especially if the numbers of cord-cutters rise. Still, any change is likely to be about larger changes to TSN and ESPN, not just the CFL, and those changes may not happen for some time.