Canadian football is returning to ESPN. It appears that the “multi-year deal” the Canadian Football League signed with ESPN in 2014 was for at least three years, as both the league and the network announced Wednesday that ESPN will show 20 CFL games on their various television platforms this year (including the 104th Grey Cup) and stream 69 more on ESPN3, covering the entire regular season and playoffs. Those numbers are identical to what they did in 2015, but up from the 17/69 in 2014. Interestingly enough, they’ll be streaming preseason games again as well this year (something that was new last year), including Wednesday night’s preseason opener between the Montreal Alouettes and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN3.) Here are the preseason broadcasts they’ve announced (all times Eastern):
Wed, Jun 8, 8 p.m., Montreal Alouettes vs. Winnipeg Blue Bombers, ESPN3
Sat, Jun 11, 9 p.m., BC Lions vs. Saskatchewan Roughriders, ESPN3
Mon, Jun 13, 7 p.m., Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs. Ottawa REDBLACKS (yeah, that’s a thing), ESPN3
Fri, Jun 17, 8 p.m., Toronto Argonauts vs. Montreal Alouettes, ESPN3
They’ll also be televising the season opener on Thursday, June 23, which sees the first regular-season CFL game at the Toronto Argonauts’ new stadium, the renovated BMO Field (which will host the Grey Cup this November). The Argonauts will be hosting their local rivals, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and that game will air at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPNEWS.
It’s interesting to see a decent amount of CFL games on ESPN and its various platforms again, and that would seem to be a sign this deal continues to work for both parties. For ESPN, they get reasonably-attractive (it’s football, after all, and often features notable former college players) live event programming, especially useful for filling those summer slots and going up against the Olympics, and they get it without having to pay significant rights fees or any production costs (ESPN picks up the feed from Canada’s TSN, a network they own 20 per cent of). For the CFL, there presumably isn’t much money in this given that the U.S. ratings aren’t great, but the exposure’s important; it helps to attract new U.S. fans and keep existing ones, but even more importantly, it gets them on the radar for prospective players, and it keeps American players already in the league happy (as it’s easy for their friends and family to watch them). Continuing with ESPN also gives them access to a pretty robust and popular streaming platform for the non-televised games, and it provides consistency that wasn’t present a few years ago when games were spread across American networks. It’s unlikely the CFL’s ever going to be huge in the U.S., but it’s found a decent level of success, and the ESPN partnership seems to be working out for both sides. We’ll see if that continues to be the case going forward, but for 2016, CFL fans in the U.S. will again be turning to ESPN.