A CBSSN/CFL graphic. A CBSSN/CFL graphic.

After almost a decade of having ESPN as their exclusive U.S. television partner, carrying all games on linear or digital platforms, the Canadian Football League is now changing course. CFL games had been broadcast on ESPN since 1980, and exclusively on ESPN platforms since 2014, but CBS Sports Network will now be the league’s “U.S. broadcast partner” under a new multi-year deal. However, CBSSN will only carry 34 of the league’s 86 games this season (81 regular-season, five playoff, including the 110th Grey Cup), with the destination for the rest of the games set to be announced later. Here’s how the CFL announced that:

Here are some quotes from that release:

“We’re looking forward to working closely with CBS Sports Network to serve our loyal fans in the U.S. and grow our base there,” said Randy Ambrosie, Commissioner of the CFL.

“CBS Sports is synonymous with the finest in sports broadcasting and we’re proud to showcase our product on its network.”

…“The CFL is an exciting brand of football, with a great history that has long included some of the stars of the game,” said Dan Weinberg, Executive Vice President, Programming, CBS Sports. “We are excited for the CFL to join our robust lineup of live events on CBS Sports Network and we look forward to showcasing the current generation of CFL stars.”

…“We’re confident that, working together, we can serve our American fans and continue to grow their numbers,” Ambrosie said.

“We’re looking forward to a partnership that brings together the best of Canadian football and one of the great brands in American sports television.”

This will mark a year-over-year increase in linear television games for the CFL. Last year saw 20 of 81 regular-season games on linear networks (ESPN2 and ESPNEWS), with the remainder on ESPN+; that was a rise over 15 of 81 in 2019. (The league did not play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and only played a shortened 63-game season in 2021 thanks to the pandemic, with 11 of those games carried linearly on ESPN platforms). However, it will also come with a reduction in the number of households able to view those linear games. ESPN2 was in 73 million homes in April, while ESPNEWS was in 56 million last fall. It is not clear how many homes CBSSN currently is in, as it’s not Nielsen-rated and isn’t broken out in Paramount Global’s financial reports, but the answer seems quite likely to be “not as many” given how few cable, satellite, and virtual multichannel video providers carry it in basic or lower-tier packages.

The other big part of this picture is what’s going to happen to the 52 games not carried on CBSSN. The above release says “The CFL will also announce how U.S. fans can watch games not being broadcast on CBS Sports Network at a later date.” The release doesn’t fully spell out exclusivity for CBSSN in the linear TV realm, but that seems likely, with the “U.S. broadcast partner” language in the tweet supporting that. So it seems probable the other games here are heading to a streaming service of some sort. (And we don’t even know which games are going to be broadcast on CBSSN yet, with that also to be announced, but with this being the first deal announced and with it not specifying regular season only, it would seem likely they’ll have the Grey Cup and some, if not all, of the playoffs.)

Update: TSN’s Dave Naylor reported that this will only be 34 regular-season games. So the destination for the Grey Cup and the playoffs remains to be seen. Naylor had previously reported in February that there were two networks involved. And ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio wrote earlier this month that they had been in talks with ESPN, and had also mulled a direct-to-consumer option.

If the remainder of the games here do go to a streaming service, that could be CBS’ own Paramount+. But, if that’s the case, it would seem likely that would have been announced now as well (but perhaps the deal isn’t done). Another option might be a continuation with ESPN+: ESPN platforms (mostly ESPN3, the MVPD-authentication-required streaming service) continued to carry some CFL games during the league’s last dalliances with other U.S. broadcasters, which included NFL Network in 2010 and 2011 and NBC Sports Network (RIP) in 2012 and 2013, and in those cases, even streamed many of the games broadcast by other corporations’ networks (that seems to be much less of a thing in 2023, though, so don’t expect that option here). There are also the regularly-floated tech companies like Apple and Amazon, but there haven’t been many reports of that being likely for the CFL. Other options could be other streaming services like DAZN or FloSports.

At any rate, this is going to be a major change for U.S. CFL fans. It comes after some talk of the league moving away from ESPN, going back as far as 2017 (very early in Ambrosie’s tenure as commissioner), but it’s still not necessarily a positive move. Yes, CBSSN quite probably has more subscribers than ESPN+ (24.9 million at the end of Q1 2023), but it quite likely has less than ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. And an advantage of ESPN+ was that it was attainable for anyone regardless of which MVPD they had or if they had one at all; CBSSN does not share that edge.

There are more “linear TV” games here, and the CFL can claim a win on that front. But that comes with notable caveats, especially in a high cord-cutting era where many of the 123.8 million Nielsen-estimated TV households have no MVPD (and many of those who do do not have CBSSN). Another big piece of the puzzle here is going to be where the remaining games wind up and how accessible they are.

There is also always the financial picture to consider as well. It’s possible that this CBSSN deal plus whatever U.S. deal the league can sign for the remainder of its games is going to equal more money for the CFL yearly, and that would help the league on that front. It seems unlikely the league is going to get big U.S. TV money; it never has to date, and it’s possibly even harder to sell networks on it given that there are now two U.S.-based alternative football leagues in the USFL and XFL (even if their seasons don’t overlap with the CFL in a significant way; the last two regular-season weeks and two playoff weeks of the USFL overlap with the June 8 start of the CFL season, but there’s no XFL overlap), but they might see a slight increase here. (The CFL is generally decently cheap content for U.S. networks, especially with them generally picking up the TSN feed from Canada instead of doing their own broadcasts, and it’s decent summer content in particular, so there is some value to it.)

Update: 3DownNation’s John Hodge has the old ESPN deal as worth $100,000-$200,000 U.S. a year, which sounds about right, and is much less than the $50 million Canadian (currently around $36.7 million U.S.) the league gets each year from TSN. TSN’s Dave Naylor has reported this new deal as “the most significant [the] league has ever had in US.”

However, the exposure piece is always a big part of U.S. TV deals, not just for fans but for players. Current American players want their U.S.-based friends and family to be able to watch, as well as NFL scouts. And TV exposure can help with future player recruitment. And the overall exposure does seem like it might decline under this deal. But a lot of that will depend on where the other more-than-half of the games wind up.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.