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opinion

Oscar Lopez, the CEO of Mediapro Canada.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

When Alphonso Davies pulled his astonishing Roadrunner routine against Panama last month – streaking down the sidelines, snatching the ball millimetres before it crossed the touchline, then handcuffing a defender and the ‘keeper for a highlight-reel goal – Canadian soccer fans weren’t the only ones celebrating.

In the Mississauga headquarters of OneSoccer, the startup streaming service whose bread and butter is broadcasting games of the three-year-old Canadian Premier League, executives realized Davies had just handed them a perfect pebble in their David versus Goliath battle against the telecom giants who gatekeep TV distribution in this country. Suddenly, they knew they had something very valuable.

It’s a striking turnaround for a sport that, until recently, you couldn’t even give away.

Not so long ago, the only way the Canadian men’s national soccer team landed on television was for Canada Soccer, the governing body overseeing the sport in this country, to buy the airtime: paying a network to broadcast and produce the games.

Andi Petrillo conducts a live virtual interview with Canadian Premier League Commisioner David Clanachan on the broadcast set at OneSoccer Studios in Mississauga, Ont. on Nov. 10.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Sure, fans could also scour the Internet for foreign broadcasts, but those were just as unpredictable. “If you were a Canadian soccer fan, you spent most of the last two decades watching your national team play – if it was available at all – on sketchy, one-camera shoots, on streams with all kinds of pop-ups,” said Gareth Wheeler, a long-time soccer writer who now works for OneSoccer as a play-by-play commentator. “It was like trying to mine for gold.”

That woeful state made the game ripe for a disruptor such as OneSoccer, which can scoop up the rights for niche leagues and tournaments that mainstream sports channels usually feel aren’t worth the trouble, and take the games, via an app, directly to a passionate fan base that’s happy to pay $10 a month or $100 a year.

But when Canadian teams or athletes have long-awaited breakthroughs, and casual Canadian fans, who believe it’s inscribed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that they should be able to tune in to every live sporting event around the globe on their TVs, it can spur a very Canadian kind of crisis.

In early 2019, as Bianca Andreescu shot into the spotlight with her championship run at Indian Wells, Canadians suddenly discovered they couldn’t actually watch every WTA tournament on their TVs. Or, rather, they couldn’t do so without subscribing to the online service DAZN – which, frankly, most of them hadn’t heard of and even fewer could pronounce.

OneSoccer’s ownership of rights to games that millions of Canadians have suddenly decided they want to watch (without the hassle of navigating new subscriptions – or paying for them), illustrates a fault point in the expanding sports-media universe. Even as niche online services mushroom across the landscape, giving fans more choices, national federations chafe at the public not being able to access their sports, especially when they’re having a big moment. That’s especially true when those federations are supported by taxpayers: Canada Soccer’s 2020 annual report indicates 31 per cent of its funds came from government grants.

Tennis Canada wasn’t thrilled that Andreescu couldn’t be seen by casual fans, and so, shortly before Indian Wells 2020 was scheduled to kick off (prior to COVID-19 shutting it down), DAZN announced it was sublicensing the rights for a clutch of WTA tournaments to TSN.

OneSoccer’s ownership of rights to games that millions of Canadians have suddenly decided they want to watch illustrates a fault point in the expanding sports-media universe.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

OneSoccer cannily pre-empted any such crisis by sharing its broadcasts of the 13 World Cup qualifying games played by the men’s national team, between September and next March, with Sportsnet. It’s partly through that Rogers-owned channel’s broader distribution that the Canada vs. Panama game reached an estimated two million viewers, according to OneSoccer. (The average audience, of viewers tuned in at any given moment, was closer to 400,000.)

But that move wasn’t just a way of keeping Canada Soccer happy. OneSoccer would very much like to make the jump to the mainstream by landing on every Canadians’ cable dial. Up to this point, the big TV distributors – Rogers Cable, Bell Fibe, Shaw Cable, etc – have shrugged off its approaches, noting that even big CPL games, which make up the bulk of OneSoccer’s live programming, have pulled in an average audience of only about 100,000. When Alphonso Davies electrifies the country with a goal, that opens doors for OneSoccer.

“For us, this is really important,” says Oscar Lopez, speaking of the two men’s national team games happening in Edmonton, against Costa Rica (Friday) and Mexico (next Tuesday). “If Canada qualifies for the 2022 World Cup, it is going to change forever soccer in this country.”

Lopez, a former soccer player from Spain who was in the second division until an injury as a teenager forced him to bow out, became CEO of Mediapro Canada, which owns OneSoccer, in early 2019. The company had just acquired 10 years’ worth of rights to CPL games and other tournaments.

He explained that he and his team are now “in conversations with everybody” for TV distribution. They signed a deal at the end of September to be carried on one of the free channels on Telus’s Optik TV service, and will become part of a paid sports bundle on that platform by the end of the year.

Placing the World Cup qualifiers on Sportsnet is something of a Trojan Horse: demonstrating the power of Canadian soccer, and then using that power to force the hand of its cable company sibling into packaging the channel with its other sports offerings.

“The idea is, we supply these games [free] – and no more,” Lopez says. After all, OneSoccer expects to have a very entertaining slate of games in 2022 – both the men’s national team’s friendlies (if Canada qualifies for the World Cup) as well as the women’s World Cup qualifiers. If it can’t use those matches to drive subscriptions, what’s the point?

By the time the men’s World Cup qualifying round wraps up on March 30, Lopez says he would hope OneSoccer is on all of the major cable systems.

“If not, my question is: Why not?” he says. “We are investing in Canada, we have new employees, we are producing here. More than 85 per cent of our content is Canadian. We are trying for gender equity,” with hopes of being a broadcast partner of a Canadian women’s pro league to match the CPL.

“We are flexible [in terms of wholesale pricing],” he says. “So, for me, in March, we have to be distributed on all the platforms. If not, we will go to the [Canadian TV regulator] CRTC and say, Guys, what is the problem?”

And then? “We want to be the destination point for soccer in this country,” he says. TSN has the World Cup rights for 2022 and 2026. “After that, who knows?”