We now know the Canadian Football League’s plans to broadcast the remainder of their games in the U.S., and they’re highly unconventional. The CFL announced last month that they would have 34 regular-season games (of 81) broadcast in the U.S. on CBS Sports Network this year, a change from the league’s long-standing partnership with ESPN. At that point, they only said that the destination for the remainder of those games (47 regular-season games and five playoff games, including the Grey Cup) would be announced later.
Well, that destination was announced Friday, and it’s a league-run “CFL+” streaming service. The service will be free (requiring just a verified email address), and will be available in the U.S. and around the world, but it will only be available on desktop and mobile devices rather than smart TVs or connected-TV devices (for now). It will carry the Canadian TV broadcasts from TSN, as is the case for most international CFL broadcasts. There’s also a “CFL Preseason Live” service, which will also be free (with an email signup), and that will broadcast the six preseason games (of nine) not carried in Canada by TSN and RDS to the U.S. and the world. (None of this impacts the Canadian broadcasting rights, which remain with TSN and RDS.)
CFL to announce this morning that all @TSN regular season @CFL broadcasts will be availability on-line in the US. As well, any pre-season games not carried on TSN/RDS in Canada will be available on-line, with local radio calls on the video broadcast. #CFL
— Dave Naylor (@TSNDaveNaylor) May 19, 2023
— CFL News (@CFL_News) May 19, 2023
Here are some quotes from that CFL release:
“Free online viewing represents a new path forward for the league and all our fans,” said CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie. “Through these platforms, we are prioritizing access and reach, while placing an added emphasis on building a more direct connection with our viewers.
“With CFL Preseason Live, we listened to our fans. The preseason is an exciting time of possibility in the lead-up to the campaign ahead. We recognized an opportunity to provide a new service for our fans, and we worked with our teams to make it happen.”
…“Through CFL+, we will better serve our fanbase, while reaching a new generation of viewers,” added the Commissioner. “More Americans will be able to see their collegiate stars continue their football journeys north of the border, and more fans around the world will have the opportunity to see their favourite players take the field in Canada.”
…“CFL Preseason Live and CFL+ will be exciting new ventures as we broaden our scope of league offerings,” said the Commissioner. “We’ll continue to explore different possibilities and we look forward to providing a fuller and richer experience for all our fans – wherever they are in the world.”
For Canadian football fans outside the U.S. and Canada (a key target for the league’s “CFL 2.0” strategy), this seems like an easy win. The CFL had offered streaming options in many territories before, but had charged for them, with last year’s prices (through streaming platform Visiac) ranging from $100 (Canadian, around $74 U.S.) for the full season to $8 CAD for the Grey Cup to $5 CAD for individual games. Now, those fans will be able to get these preseason games, the full season, and the playoffs and Grey Cup for free, albeit only on desktop and mobile devices. (That can still lead to watching on TV with proper use of a casting app or an HDMI cord, but it’s a little trickier than a smart TV/connected-TV app. And it should also be noted that these games can only be watched live under this new CFL+ plan, with no pause or rewind functionality and no on-demand access.)
Meanwhile, for CFL fans in the U.S., the access to these particular games is a win on the cost front, but it comes with more caveats elsewhere. The league’s previous U.S. deal with ESPN, which had been their exclusive U.S. broadcaster since 2014 (and had broadcast some of their games in some fashion since 1980), started with games on linear ESPN networks and multichannel video provider-authentication required streaming on ESPN3, all of which required a cable, satellite, or virtual MVPD package containing ESPN networks (generally at least $60 USD a month, often higher).
In 2018, with ESPN launching over-the-top service ESPN+, the non-televised games (68: 64 regular-season, four preseason) moved to that service (which then cost $5 USD a month; it’s now $10 USD a month, outside bundling possibilities). And that split has generally remained about the same since then. That was a cheaper option for those who didn’t have MVPD packages, but it didn’t offer access to the televised games, including the playoffs and Grey Cup. (However, it was quite possible for fans without cable to watch much of the season on ESPN+, then sign up for YouTube TV or another vMVPD for free trials or a single month for the playoffs and Grey Cup.)
Now, the ESPN+ portion of this is gone. But there’s still a MVPD required for those interested in the 34 CBSSN games. And CBSSN does generally have worse carriage than ESPN, and is in a higher tier on many MVPDs. And the percentage of CFL fans who had ESPN outside of anything involving the league is higher than the percentage who had CBSSN. However, CBSSN does have decent vMVPD carriage across Fubo, YouTube TV, Hulu+Live TV and more. So there are options for those who want those games. And those not particularly concerned with those specific games can now watch the rest of the season and the playoffs for free.
But there are questions around how easy and good the access here will be, especially with this being limited to desktop and mobile devices and coming without rewind or on-demand functionality. And the cost side is only a win if these moves mean people no longer need linear ESPN or ESPN+, and both of those have a lot of prominent sports beyond the CFL. So this isn’t necessarily freeing up money for CFL fans who still want those networks’ other content.
At least on the theoretical side, though, this CFL+ move is a significant reduction of the cost for a U.S. or international viewer to watch the CFL (ignoring what other sports services or packages they subscribe to). And that fits into an interesting trend we’re seeing of some sports events moving to free-to-access (well, with an antenna) options like broadcast TV, with the Phoenix Suns and Mercury recent particular leaders there (but others expected to try that approach). The idea there is to expand reach, using broadcasts as a way to pull in and engage more fans (who you can then make money off of in other ways) rather than just a way to maximize straight revenue. And many have talked up the value of that, although a lot of them have skin in the game.
In the end, the CFL’s overall U.S. approach here has some similarities to the NFL’s. They’re getting much more money (reportedly $1 million CAD/$740,000 USD annually) from CBSSN than they were from ESPN (reportedly $100,000-$200,000 USD) for one part of the package that has more limited reach, comparable to what the NFL is raking in for its streaming games on Amazon’s Prime Video and Peacock and its cable games on ESPN. They’re then making the rest of their package widely and freely available, via streaming in their case, but comparable to the NFL games on broadcast TV.
The big remaining questions around this approach are how easy and enjoyable this CFL+ experience will be for fans compared to previous broadcast setups, and if it will actually increase the league’s reach significantly. Free content is great, but in this particular case, it also comes with the need to specifically seek it out. These streaming games aren’t going to pop up in an ESPN+ or Hulu interface, and without even a smart TV or connected-TV CFL+ app, this is only going to work for people who either have a plan for connecting digital content to their TVs or are fine watching it on smaller screens.
But the CFL does now have the ability to let people in the U.S. watch many of their games for free (or, in the case of those elsewhere in the world, watch all of them for free). To make this really work, though, they’ll need to market that, and they’ll need audience demand. And the audience demand is an open question, especially with two major competing U.S. alternative football leagues at the moment in the XFL and USFL. (The XFL season doesn’t overlap the CFL’s, and the USFL’s only barely does, but they are further football on the market, in addition to the always-powerful NFL and NCAA football competition the CFL regularly faces.) The CFL has now built a free streaming platform for a lot of their content; the question is if the fans will come.