The federal broadcast regulator chastised Rogers Communications Inc. this week, saying in a decision that the cable and wireless giant gave preferential treatment to its own Sportsnet service over OneSoccer, an upstart streaming service that has struggled to gain a foothold, even as the popularity of soccer is soaring in Canada.
In the decision, handed down Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says it found Rogers had given undue preference to itself and other comparable services in its dealings with OneSoccer, which launched in 2019 as a direct-to-consumer streaming service but has been trying to secure carriage on traditional cable TV lineups.
The decision could pave the way for domestic soccer to get into millions of Canadian homes through traditional cable TV packages.
Telus is currently the only TV distributor in Canada carrying the channel.
Last summer, OneSoccer lodged a compliant with the commission, arguing Rogers was refusing to carry the channel in order to protect its own Sportsnet service from competition. In a filing, Rogers replied it doesn’t air enough soccer for OneSoccer to present meaningful competition to its business. Rogers also noted that it had offered to carry OneSoccer on its Ignite TV and Ignite Streaming platforms.
But in its decision, the commission found that Rogers had not given OneSoccer the same opportunity for carriage as two independent sport channels, BeIN Sports Canada and EuroWorld Sport, or Rogers’s own Sportsnet World, which all air a significant amount of soccer coverage.
OneSoccer noted that more than 90 per cent of its programming is Canadian, including the World Cup qualifying matches of the Canadian national senior women’s and men’s teams, CONCACAF Nation’s League play, and Gold Cup games. A large part of its live programming is Canadian Premier League play, now in its fifth season.
The CRTC said “it is unfortunate that soccer fans in Canada have very limited ways of watching Canadian soccer and soccer-related content on television,” and added that it found Rogers’s “refusal to distribute OneSoccer has also had an impact on Canadians.”
The commission added that Rogers carrying OneSoccer would “enhance the diversity of voices and the plurality of ownership in sports programming services, which is largely dominated by the two largest vertically integrated entities in the country,” Rogers Media and Bell Media.
In a statement, OneSoccer called the decision “an important step forward for Canadian soccer.”
“Soccer is the fastest-growing sport in the country, and with competitive national teams in both the women and men’s categories, a growing professional league in the CPL and continuing grassroots development, soccer is deserving of broader coverage – and the CTRC clearly recognized this fact,” said Martijn Bakx, the chief executive of Mediapro Canada, which operates OneSoccer.
A Rogers spokesperson said the company was reviewing the decision. “We are proud to offer our customers a wide variety of popular and coveted sports content,” Cam Gordon said.
Both companies have until April 11 to submit proposed remedies to the commission, to resolve the finding of undue preference and disadvantage, with responses to each other’s filings due 10 days later.
OneSoccer is expected to use the decision as leverage in its negotiations with other TV distributors, including Bell Fibe, Shaw Cable, Cogeco and others.
The CRTC licence for OneSoccer is held by Scott Mitchell, who is also the chair of Canadian Soccer Business (CSB), a private company which signed a long-term deal in 2019 for the broadcasting and marketing assets of Canada Soccer. That deal is now under government scrutiny for what some members of the women’s and men’s senior national teams say are unfavourable terms that “handcuff” Canada Soccer and prevent it from capitalizing on the sport’s newfound popularity.
Before the deal with CSB, Canada Soccer was often forced to purchase network airtime in order to fulfill its obligations to sponsors, by ensuring national team games were available to domestic TV audiences. Those sponsorships would become significantly more valuable if OneSoccer ends up in several million more Canadian homes.