The Canadian Football League’s partnership with ESPN continues. CFL games have been shown on ESPN since 1980 and have been exclusive (in the United States) to ESPN platforms since 2014, with the latest announced deal there a multi-year extension in 2019. That’s going to continue in 2022, with the league announcing its ESPN2/ESPNEWS/ESPN+ schedule Wednesday. That season begins Thursday with the Calgary Stampeders hosting the Montreal Alouettes (9 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPN+).
This time around, 20 of the 81 regular-season CFL games will be carried on linear networks ESPN2 and ESPNEWS (and streamed on the ESPN app with multichannel video provider authentication), with the remaining 61 on over-the-top subscription service ESPN+. The 109th Grey Cup championship game will air on ESPN2 on Nov. 20.
The four playoff games ahead of that do not have network or streaming assignments yet. Last season, the four playoff games were carried on linear TV, with three on ESPNEWS and the remaining one on ESPN2.
There is a significant rise in the amount of regular-season games on linear TV this season, which was at 11 last year. However, last season was shortened thanks to Canadian governmental COVID-19 policies. It was only a 63-game regular season rather than an 81-game one, and it started in August and ended in December. There is a higher linear TV percentage here, though, as 20 of 81 games is 24.7 percent, and 11 of 63 is 17.5 percent. And this is a linear TV boost over 2019 (the CFL did not play in 2020 due to the pandemic), when 15 of 81 regular-season games (18.5 percent) were aired on linear TV.
Whether an increased percentage of linear TV games is good for an individual consumer depends. If you have a MVPD package (cable, satellite, or virtual MVPD) that includes access to ESPN’s linear networks, but don’t have ESPN+, more linear games are beneficial for you. If you have ESPN+ and not a MVPD with linear ESPN networks, you have less access to the CFL under a plan like this. If you have both of those subscriptions, it doesn’t matter (beyond any inconvenience from watching on the ESPN app versus watching on linear TV).
It should also be noted that this CFL season comes with yet more divisional games. That will be useful for reducing teams’ travel costs, and for playing up the “rivalries!” aspect of the games. But it means less distinct matchups. The TV ratings effect of that (in both Canada and the U.S.) is yet to be determined.
Speaking of Canadian TV, ESPN will again be picking up CFL feeds from Canada’s The Sports Network (TSN), the Canadian rightsholder. ESPN has a 30 percent stake in that company, with Bell Media owning the remaining 70 percent. TSN announced their CFL coverage plans this week, and the personalities involved are largely the same as what we’ve seen in the past few years. There are a couple of changes, though; one is the absence of studio panelist Jim Barker, who’s returned to a team executive role as a senior advisor to the Toronto Argonauts, and another is the absence of play-by-play announcer Rod Black, who left TSN last October after three decades there. All of their remaining named play-by-play announcers (Rod Smith, Dustin Nielson, Marshall Ferguson, and Farhan Lalji) were in that role last year as well, so there’s lots of experience there, and named studio analysts Matt Dunigan, Milt Stegall, and Davis Sanchez are also all carryovers. But that release notes “special guest analysts throughout the season” for the studio, so we’ll see who those turn out to be.
It’s also worth mentioning that this CFL season was close to not happening. Negotiations between the league and the CFL Players’ Association on a new collective bargaining agreement got quite contentious, with the players actually launching their first strike (after receiving a 95-percent-plus mandate from membership) since 1974, and then voting down a tentative agreement in May. However, the sides then agreed on a compromise, and ratified a seven-year CBA (although it can be reopened after five years when the league’s Canadian broadcast deals with TSN expire). So that should provide uninterrupted CFL action for the next few seasons.