The Grey Cup at the 2023 CFL Awards. Nov 16, 2023; Niagra Falls, Ontario, CAN; Two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stand guard beside the Grey Cup prior to the CFL Awards at Fallsview Casino & Resort. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always worth remembering that the amount of people who read a particular piece of broadcasting news tends to be smaller than the amount of people who watch games, which leads to outcomes like “I can’t find this game!” complaints well after it was announced where the game was. That discrepancy can rise even further around less-covered leagues. And a particularly interesting example of this comes from the Canadian Football League.

There, the league is facing a controversy that appears to be about Canadian fans discovering and weighing in on the CFL’s U.S. broadcasting setup. That’s about the “news” that Sunday’s 110th Grey Cup (set for a 6 p.m. ET start) will air in the U.S. (and around the world outside Canada, where it will be on TSN as normal) on the league’s free CFL+ streaming service. This news was announced in May (and we wrote it up then), shortly after the April news that CBSSN would carry 34 2023 regular-season CFL games in the U.S. (but not playoff or Grey Cup games). But some Canadian journalists covering the Grey Cup made a big deal of discovering this this week, and that’s led to a lot of Canadian fans also discovering it and weighing in.

Now, as that 3DownNation piece notes, CBSSN did have an option to pick up playoff and/or Grey Cup games, but chose not to do that. So there is perhaps some marginal value to getting confirmation from the league that their CFL+ U.S. broadcasting plans are continuing as announced. But “Broadcasting plan announced six months ago is still happening as stated” is hardly a “Friday afternoon news dump.” (Especially as CBSSN was never going to pick this up given their college basketball commitments Sunday, and CBS does not have another place to put this, and it would be very weird for another network to come in for one game.)

And it’s interesting that there’s been so much reaction to this (both of the above tweets have generated a lot of conversation), and that that reaction is largely coming from Canadian viewers who aren’t directly impacted (as the Canadian broadcast will still be on TSN, the league’s exclusive Canadian broadcaster since 2008). Those viewers are of course welcome to opine on what this means for the overall league (U.S. broadcast success or lack thereof certainly has some impacts on the CFL as a whole), and the current CBSSN/CFL+ setup has both pros and cons (as we discussed in May, and will discuss more below). But there is absolutely no new information here beyond “What was announced in May is still happening,” so a lot of the takes on it feel pretty old.

The CFL U.S. broadcasting deal, and particularly its extensive free streaming component, has some radical differences from both past CFL deals and from other leagues’ streaming deals. In the U.S., ESPN had been the league’s exclusive broadcaster from 2014-22 (and had broadcast some CFL games since 1980). That saw some games on linear television (generally on ESPN2 or ESPNEWS) and the rest on (multichannel video programming distributor authentication required) ESPN3 until 2018 and (over-the-top standalone service) ESPN+ from 2018 on, with the playoff and Grey Cup games typically on ESPN2 or ESPNEWS.

The 34 games on CBSSN this year were a jump in numbers of linear games for the CFL (which only had 20 of 81 games on linear TV in 2022, 11 of 63 there in a shortened season in 2021, and 15 of 81 there in 2019). But their exposure benefit is more debatable, with CBSSN being in less packages and households than ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. There’s an argument that the added linear games helped the league’s U.S. presence, and that the league received more marketing from CBSSN than they did as one of the zillions of sports on ESPN networks, but there’s also an argument that those linear games received less exposure thanks to the smaller reach of CBSSN.

Meanwhile, the streaming games certainly cost less, being offered for free rather than through ESPN+). But they were harder for some to access thanks to the lack of a CFL+ smart-TV or connected-TV app; the games are available through desktop and mobile browsers, and can easily be displayed on TV through a computer-to-TV HDMI hookup or a cast-to-TV function, but not everyone has that level of tech knowledge. So a lot of the arguments about if the 2023 setup was better for viewers, as with many things in this space, came down to what MVPD packages, streaming services, and tech know-how the particular arguer has.

The 2023 setup is beneficial for those who have computer-to-TV knowledge and who don’t have linear ESPN or ESPN+. But it is understandably annoying for those who got used to watching the CFL on ESPN’s networks and streaming platforms. And the playoffs and Grey Cup certainly get less linear exposure as streaming-only under this new deal. But the limited linear exposure from CBSSN works the other way there; these games are now viewable by everyone with broadband internet access, and viewable on a TV for those capable of casting or running a HDMI cable.

Thus, having the Grey Cup itself on CBSSN would not necessarily have been better for all U.S. viewers. It would have made watching the game simpler for those who have CBSSN in their existing MVPD package. But it would have come with significant hurdles for everyone else. (Yes, it’s always possible to sign up for a free digital MVPD trial, watch a game, and then cancel, but that’s not an insignificant process.) Meanwhile, the free streaming is accessible to everyone with broadband internet, albeit annoying for some of those who can’t figure out how to put it on a TV.

Also, CBSSN was not going to pick up this game, as they have notable college basketball action Sunday. That’s a downside of working with them rather than ESPN, as they have one national cable channel versus five (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, ESPN Classic). So the CFL can only put games there when that works with the CBSSN schedule, and it generally doesn’t in the playoffs (as that’s when CBSSN has more CFB and CBB action, which is why the CBSSN games were earlier in the year, despite those being less-important CFL games). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Grey Cup has no U.S. value; it just isn’t a particular fit for the league’s U.S. TV partner, so it goes to streaming.

There’s another important piece of this puzzle to consider, too. And it’s maybe the most important for those looking at this from a “What does this mean for the league?” perspective (which, presumably, is the primary reason why Canadian fans would care about broadcasts in other countries). That’s the financial picture. And that seems undisputedly better for the CFL, at least for the moment.

TSN’s Dave Naylor reported in April that this new CBSSN deal is “the most significant [the] league has ever had in [the] US.” 3DownNation’s John Hodge reported around then that the old ESPN deal was worth $100,000 to $200,000 annually, and TSN’s Farhan Lalji reported that the CBS deal is worth $1 million a year. So that’s a five-times to 10-times value jump. And it’s for only a fraction of the inventory; while the league obviously isn’t making any money from offering the rest of the games on free streaming, they are serving their fans there and gaining potential exposure that way, and they could possibly make CFL+ a paid service down the road (although that would reduce the exposure and access gained there).

It should be noted, too, that unlike the streaming-focused deals for many U.S. leagues, none of this comes with significant production costs beyond streaming infrastructure. The U.S. broadcasts (linear and streaming) are not originals, but rather simulcasts of TSN’s Canadian feed. So the CFL’s unquestionably better off on the financial side with this U.S. deal than they were with the old ESPN one. Arguments certainly can be made that the old ESPN one stood out for exposure and access reasons, but it wasn’t better financially, so this isn’t the “blow for the league” many Canadian fans on Twitter have billed it as. (And the people with actual reason to complain here are U.S. fans who for one reason or another find themselves unable to access this free streaming product, not Canadian fans claiming it’s bad for the league.)

The CFL+ product certainly is not beyond criticism. For one thing, it’s unfortunate that it has not yet been developed into a smart TV/connected-TV app, which would mitigate many of the concerns people have raised about not being able to watch on TV. (Again, this is very possible through HDMI hookups or casting, but those are more tech-savvy solutions.) And if this does go to a paid service, it should absolutely be offered that way.

Beyond that, there have been some occasional technical hiccups (but, as someone who’s watched many games on CFL+ this year and on ESPN+ and ESPN3 before that, the amounts of hiccups this year haven’t seemed higher). And yes, there’s a perception that “streaming-only” is of lesser quality and lower access and for a product that’s not as valuable. But that’s not necessarily true, especially with the unique circumstances around this particular deal.

There are certainly some valid arguments against the growing shift of sports properties to over-the-top streaming services, especially when it comes to expecting people to pay for countless services that sometimes cost more than their old MVPD package did. But those arguments lose force when it’s against a streaming product being offered for free (as was the case with Apple’s initial MLB package in 2022 before they started charging for it). Those arguments then are more “I am used to consuming TV this way, and do not want to change” versus “This is actually limiting access.” (An interesting note there is that Canadian sports networks have actually been far more progressive on streaming direct to consumer than their U.S. counterparts; TSN’s linear feed has been available outside a MVPD on TSN Direct since June 2018, while Sportsnet’s has been available on Sportsnet Now since March 2016; some U.S. RSNs are only recently getting to that, and ESPN itself isn’t getting there until 2025.)

And, in some ways, putting games on free streaming has some crossover to the growing number of teams we’re seeing take their local broadcasts from cable/satellite regional sports networks to over-the-air broadcast TV stations. Free streaming comes with additional technical hurdles to access, especially without a dedicated app. But it carries a lower financial cost for viewers than any deal with ESPN, CBS, or anyone else. (The actual legitimate access complaint about free streaming is from people who live in areas without high-speed internet access, but with cable or satellite TV access. But that’s a small group, and not the one that’s usually heard from here.)

As with everything, everyone is allowed to feel however they want about a particular move. It’s sports, and a significant part of sports fandom for many is arguing. And that can definitely be about TV deals as well as on-the-field impacts. But many of the arguments about this particular U.S. deal for this particular Grey Cup have some issues. This isn’t news (apart from the league confirming there are no changes to what they announced in May).

And unlike the way this is being presented by many, this isn’t necessarily bad news for the CFL. There will certainly be less people who stumble across this Grey Cup than when it was on ESPN2. But it’s far from clear that that casual audience has ever been super important for the league. (It certainly didn’t lead to a lot of TV money from ESPN.) And it’s worth keeping in mind that unlike most North American professional sports, the U.S. is not even close to the primary market or revenue source for the CFL; they get around $50 million Canadian (currently $36.4 million USD) from TSN annually, and that’s what’s really important for them.

The CFL’s U.S. contracts have always been about getting a little money, but mostly making games viewable for players’ families and friends and potential future players. And a free streaming move there is not necessarily a downgrade; anyone with interest and minimal technical know-how can figure this out and watch Sunday’s game without paying anything to anyone (other than their existing internet service provider, which they presumably need for many other reasons). So the “What a crisis for this league” takes on six-month-old news feel somewhat overwrought. Especially for those in Canada who don’t even have to figure out how to watch this game on streaming, and can just tune to TSN (linearly or digitally) the way they always have.

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.