The CFL’s 2021 season (a shortened 14-game season, and its first return to regular-season games since the cancellation of the 2020 season over COVID-19) begins Thursday night with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on the road against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (8:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2), and the season will again receive full coverage on ESPN. The league has had a long relationship with ESPN, dating back to 1980 (the first football game of any sort on the nascent network was a Toronto Argonauts-Montreal Alouettes contest that year), but its U.S. coverage has sometimes been scattered amongst networks like NFL Network and NBCSN as well. However, since 2014, the CFL has been an exclusive-to-ESPN property, and that continued with a multi-year deal in 2019. And ESPN put out a release Wednesday with their full CFL schedule for this year. Here’s more from that release:
ESPN networks and ESPN+ will document the return of the Canadian Football League (CFL), offering fans in the United States access to all 68 games in 2021, starting with tomorrow’s season-opener: a 2019 Grey Cup rematch between the champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
As part of a multi-year agreement, ESPN2, ESPNEWS and ESPN+ will combine to present every CFL game live, culminating with the Semi-Finals, Finals and 108th Grey Cup on Dec. 12. The 2021 schedule features 14 games for each team, which includes Thursday night games in the summer, Friday night football each week and Saturday night games throughout the season.
That schedule features seven games on ESPN2, including Thursday’s opener, the 108th Grey Cup on December 12 and the Eastern semifinal on November 28. It also has eight games on ESPNEWS, including the three other playoff games. The remaining 53 games will be on ESPN+. In 2019, at least 20 games were carried on linear TV, so this comes with more of an ESPN+ shift than we’ve seen before, but it’s notable that this is a shortened season with less total games (and less summer games, which are the ones more likely to air on linear ESPN networks).
And the ESPN+ move isn’t all bad. It’s an extra cost for those who have ESPN via cable or satellite but don’t yet subscribe to ESPN+, but it’s a nice boost for those cord-cutters who only have ESPN+ and not ESPN’s linear networks. And this particular schedule makes it very viable to watch the CFL in the U.S. without a linear ESPN subscription, at least until the playoffs. We’ll see how this CFL on ESPN season is received.