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A cameraman from TSN, a sports network in Canada, works as the Montreal Alouettes play the Calgary Stampeders during the CFL's 96th Grey Cup football game in Montreal, November 23, 2008. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
A cameraman from TSN, a sports network in Canada, works as the Montreal Alouettes play the Calgary Stampeders during the CFL's 96th Grey Cup football game in Montreal, November 23, 2008. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)

Daily Grind

Dowbiggin: CFL scores touchdown with big TSN deal Add to ...

It’s official. The CFL and TSN have gone from living together to a full-fledged marriage. As first reported Feb. 1, the league and broadcaster are extending the exclusive TV and digital-rights relationship they’ve had since 2008 till 2018.

But exclusivity has a price. TSN has paid more than double the previous $16-million-a-year fee to the CFL. TSN declined to discuss figures on Thursday but industry sources tell Usual Suspects that the figure is in the $34-million-a-year range with annual increases built in.

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TSN president Stewart Johnston says the network was comfortable paying extra to get exclusivity. “It’s now a pillar sport for us that offers access to nine home markets as of 2014,” he said Thursday. “Canadian content is extremely valuable. We’re coming off our strongest revenue model ever in 2012. Our advertisers are telling us how valuable the CFL is.”

While many predicted the CFL going to a multibroadcaster model, as seen in the NHL and NFL, a league fighting for its existence in the nation’s largest market simply couldn’t say no to the added money (it should work out to more than $3-million a club when Ottawa joins next season).

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon will now be able to look at his eight owners (okay, he looks at David Braley twice) and say he showed them the money (albeit in a modest Canadian model compared to the billions earned by the NFL). Yes, the league and the broadcaster are now synonymous. But so are the Blue Jays and Sportsnet. It’s the nature of the Canadian industry at the moment.

Cohon said Thursday that, because of its smaller size, exclusivity can work for the CFL. “The other leagues, no broadcaster could handle their entire inventory of games,” Cohon said. “When you looked at the increase in ratings and the holistic approach that TSN brought to this, we’re very comfortable with the commitment.”

The CFL exclusive is disappointing for Sportsnet, which was looking to place the CFL on its newly acquired network, The Score. The two networks might have done a sub-licence deal, but Sportsnet was not going to trade rights to a Blue Jays package to get a commensurate CFL slate of games.

Now Sportsnet must hope that its wholly owned baseball team delivers on its promise and provides an April-November ratings juggernaut to counter TSN’s summer menu of CFL, PGA Tour and tennis majors. Preliminary numbers from spring training, with an average of 359,400 viewers for three games, suggest that a Blue Jays playoff team could deliver.

The biggest loser in this is CBC, which was trying mightily to get the CFL back to the network that carried it for decades before TSN intervened in 2008. Sportsnet can comfort itself with the Blue Jays as a summer property, but once Hockey Night in Canada ends in June it’s a very dry patch for the public broadcaster.

The biggest concern will be that the spurned networks will temper their coverage of the CFL because it’s now seen that promoting the CFL is also promoting TSN. For that reason, there was some antipathy to the CFL’s 100th anniversary Grey Cup promotion last November in Toronto. Still, this deal is a touchdown for the CFL.

For whom Bell tolls

The willingness of TSN’s bosses at BCE Inc. to blow opponents out of the water for a rights deal foreshadows what’s to come in the bidding for Canadian NHL TV and digital rights. With its robust bottom line, BCE can stroke a cheque to the NHL that will severely test Rogers and leave CBC in the dust.

With its combination of the CTV network and TSN’s industry lead, BCE can also deliver eyeballs and page hits to back up its financial clout. The question is, will the NHL make an exclusive deal if it gets what it wants from one source?

Too late for NHL’s pot

It’s incumbent on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to score big in Canada, because his timing for the U.S. national package likely produced a deal that is now below market. Why? Since negotiations began with NBC on the eventual 10-year, $2-billion deal in 2011, both CBS and Fox have launched national sports channels to compete with ESPN and the NBC fledgling NBC Sports Channel.

Properties of all kinds are getting ridiculous money from these startups to fill their rosters. The NHL could definitely have used this to sweeten its own pot had they come into the market 18 months later. Not criticizing, just saying that timing is everything in showbiz.

dowbboy@shaw.ca / @dowbboy

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