Sportsnet’s six-year CIS deal could boost university sports, but leaves football questions

The announcement Wednesday that Rogers Sportsnet had reached a six-year deal with CIS to broadcast Canadian university football, basketball and hockey was far from unexpected, but it's still significant. It had been apparent for some time that CIS was going to pool all of its rights with one broadcaster, and as I reported in March, Sportsnet was the logical fit. With Rogers' acquisition of The Score (made official at the end of April), the company has an expanded need for live sports programming, and the cross-sports stable of CIS events seems to fit well with what they're trying to do. All in all, this deal could be a boost for the profile of university sports events across the board, and it could particularly help CIS basketball and hockey. One key question does remain, though: how much will separating Canadian university football (now on Sportsnet) from the professional CFL version (on TSN through 2018) hurt that part of the game?

It's hard to quibble with CIS for taking this deal. There are significant advantages to having all Canadian university sports broadcasts on one consortium, and Sportsnet's a much better fit there than TSN. For one thing, the minimum audience threshold for successful Sportsnet programming is lower than it is on TSN, particularly now that they now own The Score. For another thing, unlike TSN (which is partly owned by ESPN and has a substantial stock of ESPN content they can air on their channels), Sportsnet is in need of live sports programming. Sportsnet's done a decent job with CIS hockey, and they could well do a solid job with the basketball and football broadcasts as well, particularly if they maximize the knowledgeable talent already under contract at The Score. The Canadian university basketball and hockey championships (both men's and women's) will be a far better fit on Sportsnet and The Score than on TSN, and when considered as an overall picture, this makes a lot of sense for CIS. It's very beneficial that CIS basketball's now in a place where it will be taken seriously. The term also helps: six years seems about right, as that provides continuity without locking the league in for too long if things don't work out. Essentially, this paves the way for more prominent Canadian university sports content on television, and that's not a bad thing.

The impact on football is less than ideal, though, and that is worth discussing. The Vanier Cup-Grey Cup pairing worked out very well for CIS over the past two years, with CFL media and fans flocking to the Canadian university championship game in both Vancouver and Toronto, and having the national semifinals on Canadian football-centric TSN also probably helped boost the audience for Canadian university football. The quality of CIS football's constantly rising, as seen by the NFL interest in players like Stefan Charles, and pairing it with the CFL (where many CIS players wind up) was a logical fit on several fronts. The 2013 game was never going to be matched with the Grey Cup thanks to a lack of hotel space in Regina, but the Sportsnet deal makes it clear that the Vanier Cup-Grey Cup pairing is unlikely to return any time soon.

In some ways, that's unfortunate; there's a lot of crossover between the CIS and CFL audiences, and having those games on different networks may not enhance that. (Moreover, holding the Vanier in a separate city during the same week as the Grey Cup, which seems likely to happen, will minimize the media and fan attention it gets, as most of the Canadian football media and many fans will be in the Grey Cup city.) However, it's very possible that Sportsnet/The Score may show far more regular-season CIS football than TSN ever did, which would be beneficial for the game. Still, this kind of a deal does seem like a win for the overall profile of university sports in Canada, and it gives Sportsnet some appealing content. It just isn't easy to completely endorse from a football standpoint, given that it furthers the divide between the CFL and CIS levels.