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Oscar Lopez, CEO of Mediapro Canada, on the broadcast set at OneSoccer Studios in Mississauga, Ont. on Nov. 10, 2021.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

OneSoccer, the upstart Canadian streaming service that broadcast the men’s national soccer team’s triumphant run to FIFA World Cup qualification, has complained to the federal broadcast regulator that Rogers Communications Inc. is engaging in anti-competitive behaviour by refusing to carry the channel on its cable lineup because it competes against Rogers’ own Sportsnet service.

In a filing with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications known as an “undue preference application,” OneSoccer alleges Rogers is acting to prevent the soccer service from achieving “financial stability, which carriage on Rogers Cable would provide.”

The application suggests Rogers’ proposed merger with Shaw Communications Inc., which received conditional approval from the CRTC in March, will make matters worse for independents such as OneSoccer that try to compete with services owned by the enlarged company.

OneSoccer launched in 2019 as an over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, a direct-to-consumer offering delivered over the internet that was designed to bypass traditional gatekeepers such as cable companies.

But while global OTTs such as Netflix have upended the TV industry, allowing viewers to free themselves from the unwieldy cable bundle and enabling them to pick and choose only the services they want, the OneSoccer-versus-Rogers tussle highlights a little-discussed dynamic of that evolving ecosystem: Even as companies and consumers buzz about streaming, a significant share of home viewing is still watched live, with millions of people tuning in to TV programs delivered through the pipes of old-fashioned (if high-tech) cable distribution systems.

OneSoccer argues it needs access to all of Rogers’ millions of customers if it is to be financially viable.

“We are in the middle of a transition between the old cable platforms to the new content aggregators, through OTTs,” Oscar Lopez, the chief executive of Mediapro Canada, which owns OneSoccer, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “We have audiences on all the platforms. So we want to be present on all the possible screens and platforms.”

“Part of the audience wants to see the content on a traditional platform,” he explained. “They want to put a [number] in the remote and they want to see a 24-hour linear channel. They don’t want to have, you know, 10, 15 platforms.”

The filing notes that sports “is the largest revenue generator among Canadian discretionary broadcasting services” – with Sportsnet pulling in more than $3.3-billion in revenue from 2016 to 2020 and Bell Media’s TSN earning more than $2.3-billion over the same period. But the sector, “is dominated by two players,” which are both part of much larger corporations that have powerful cable and internet-delivered TV operations.

“There are very few independent sports broadcasters in Canada. The last significant independent sports broadcaster in Canada was The Score, which was purchased by Sportsnet in 2013.”

OneSoccer made its case for carriage with Rogers by partnering with the company’s own media division, sharing broadcasts of the Canadian men’s national team World Cup qualifying games with Sportsnet last fall and spring, which the filing says was, “to demonstrate the audience demand for Canadian soccer.” The broadcasts drew an average of more than one million viewers, with the clinching game in March pulling in an average audience of more than 1.6 million.

“This viewership is on par – or in excess of – other sport properties, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Raptors, or National NHL broadcasts,” OneSoccer’s filing says.

“If Rogers Cable was a stand-alone [cable company], it would want to provide highly desirable Canadian content to its customers. However, it is part of a vertically integrated corporation and other divisions will be concerned about OneSoccer’s emergence as a viable broadcaster.”

The channel owns the lion’s share of Canadian soccer broadcast rights, including all women’s and men’s national team games outside of FIFA World Cup play, Canadian Premier League, the Canadian Championship, the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament, the CONCACAF W Championship, the semi-professional League1 Canada and other programming.

OneSoccer says Rogers has offered to add the service to its Ignite online service as an app, but that is not similar to the advantageous terms Rogers grants to Sportsnet, bundling the channel with other sports programming on its main cable lineup.

Telus’ Optik service is the only major TV system that currently carries OneSoccer. The channel says it is currently in negotiations for carriage with Bell. If those talks fail, it intends to file a similar complaint with the CRTC.

But Rogers’ growing clout, with its pending acquisition of Shaw, is particularly worrisome for OneSoccer. “Rogers’ ability to reduce the effectiveness of competitors to its sports broadcasting has been amplified by its proposed purchase of Shaw,” the filing says.

After the merger is complete, the filing says, Rogers will have 47 per cent of all English-language cable subscribers in Canada, and its network will pass 80 per cent of homes in English Canada. “With such a large number of English language cable television customers, a refusal by Rogers Cable to carry a competing sports service will make it very difficult for that service to become financially viable.”

Asked for comment by The Globe on Tuesday, a Rogers spokesperson said the company had not yet seen the filing. On Wednesday, the CRTC told The Globe that, “as per our normal practices and procedures, Rogers was indeed copied on the application when it was filed with us.” In a follow-up e-mail exchange with The Globe, the company declined to comment at this time.

The CRTC does not have the power to force Rogers to carry OneSoccer, but it could fine the company. It might also bring together the two parties for mediated negotiations.

Mr. Lopez argued it is unlikely Rogers is concerned about a revolt from customers over the price for OneSoccer. The service sells direct-to-consumer for $10 a month, but Mr. Lopez said he expected the total cost if added to a Rogers’ customer bill would be less than $12 a year.

Nevertheless, the lower subscription revenue per user may be worth the trade-off for OneSoccer if it were to achieve broad distribution into millions of homes, by boosting the rates it can charge advertisers. It would also enable the Canadian teams and leagues whose games are carried on the channel to charge more for sponsorships.

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