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OneSoccer on-air personality Andi Petrillo, left, conducts a live virtual interview with Canadian Premier League Commisioner David Clanachan on the broadcast set at OneSoccer Studios in Mississauga, Ont., in 2021.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Soccer is such a small part of the live sports programming carried by Sportsnet that its parent company, Rogers Communications Inc. RCI-B-T, could not have been acting anti-competitively when it refused to carry the soccer-focused upstart streaming service OneSoccer on its cable systems, the telecom company claimed in a recent filing with Canada’s broadcast regulator.

“A niche, single-sport discretionary service, like OneSoccer, is simply not competing in the same market and for the same audiences as mainstream multisport services, like Sportsnet and Sportsnet One, that devote an extremely small amount of their schedules to soccer,” Rogers argued in a letter filed with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last month.

It submitted the letter in response to a complaint filed with the CRTC in August by OneSoccer’s parent company, Timeless Inc., alleging that Rogers was stifling competition by preventing the smaller soccer service access to its customers, in order to advantage its own dominant sports service.

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OneSoccer launched in 2019 as an over-the-top, or OTT, streaming service delivered over the internet, rather than seeking carriage as a traditional TV channel on cable systems such as Rogers Cable or Bell Fibe. It has found some success with a schedule dominated by the three-year-old Canadian Premier League and national men’s and women’s team play, going directly to consumers with its app as well as in a bundle with other channels on the U.S.-based live sports streaming service FuboTV.

But Oscar Lopez, the president of OneSoccer, told The Globe and Mail that many consumers still prefer to watch TV programs on traditional platforms.

“We are in the middle of a transition between the old cable platforms to the new content aggregators [such as FuboTV], through OTTs,” Mr. Lopez said during an interview last summer. “We have audiences on all the platforms. So we want to be present on all the possible screens and platforms.”

While Canadians have been cutting the cord in recent years and embracing internet-based streaming services, there were still more than 9.9 million cable subscriptions across the country as of Aug. 31, 2021, according to a recent CRTC report. Sportsnet reported 6.1 million subscribers as of that date, and 5.3 million for Sportsnet One. Sportsnet’s arch-rival TSN, which is owned by Bell Media, reported 6.4 million subscribers.

While Rogers insists soccer is not a significant element of its schedule – comprising “a mere 1.2 per cent of the [Sportsnet and Sportsnet One] programming,” according to the letter it filed with the CRTC – the operation does have its own soccer-focused channel, Sportsnet World. “Just over 30 per cent of [that channel’s schedule] is devoted to German Bundesliga soccer and the English FA Cup,” Rogers wrote. “None of the programming involves Canadian soccer leagues, games or teams.”

Sportsnet World retails for $20 a month on Rogers and Bell cable lineups.

Mr. Lopez estimated the likely retail cost of OneSoccer on cable would be less than $1 a month.

The dispute comes as Rogers is moving toward the close of its acquisition of Shaw Communications Inc., which will give the company a commanding 47-per-cent share of all English-language cable subscribers, according to Timeless’s complaint. In an intervention filed in support of OneSoccer, Telus Communications Inc. warned that, with Rogers’s increased market power, the CRTC “should ensure Rogers is not free to weaken the viability of its competitors as a precursor to attempting to buy the service, or its programming rights.”

In September, 2021, Telus became the first – and, so far, only – cable provider to offer the channel.

OneSoccer demonstrated its programming could attract large domestic audiences when it partnered with Rogers last fall and winter, sharing its rights to the Canadian men’s national soccer team’s FIFA World Cup qualifying games for broadcast on Sportsnet. Fuelled by an electrifying, historic run of victories and a growing national bandwagon, the games averaged more than one million viewers on the Rogers-owned channel, with the clinching match last March attracting an average audience of 1.6 million.

But Rogers argues OneSoccer has too few games of broad national interest to make the service commercially successful as a traditional TV channel, noting that the fledgling CPL, which provides the bulk of the channel’s matches, attracts only a few thousand in-person spectators for its live games, and ”obviously is not a widely popular league whose games would garner large audiences on linear TV.”

When CBC aired weekly games for the CPL’s first season in 2019, they attracted an average audience of 54,000.

Rogers noted that it offers a number of other sports services on its cable lineups that compete with Sportsnet, including TSN, RDS, beIN Sports, Big Ten Network, Fight Network, ATN Sports and ESPN Classic Canada.

In a subsequent response filed with the CRTC, Timeless scoffed at Rogers’s argument that its limited soccer offerings mean it does not compete with OneSoccer.

“While it is true that OneSoccer offers one sport and Sportsnet offers several, the two services compete,” the filing said. “A department store that offers clothing, appliances, toys and furniture still competes against a clothing store. A family restaurant that offers a range of different entrees still competes against a burger joint. Sports fans watch sports on TV. If they watch more soccer on OneSoccer, it will take eyeballs and ad dollars away from Sportsnet.”

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