ESPN’s multi-year deal with the CFL should provide stability and increased US exposure

It's a pretty typical only-in-the-CFL story to have a broadcasting deal reached the day after the season opens, but the details of the league's new U.S. broadcasting deal with ESPN announced Friday may actually help to avert that in the future. Unlike all of the recent deals for U.S. coverage (NBCSN, ESPN2 and ESPN3 last year, NBCSN and ESPN3 in 2012, NFL Network in 2011 and 2010), this one is multi-year, which means that we won't have to see "We are still finalizing our U.S. coverage" on the league website as next year approaches. Beyond that, the details of this agreement seem like yet another win for the CFL on the U.S. front; all games will be available to U.S. viewers via at least streaming, while the televised games will be on more prominent networks, and the big playoff games will be live. While the CFL doesn't necessarily need a big U.S. fanbase (although that doesn't hurt, certainly) it does need American exposure for international player recruitment and retention purposes, and the more exposure it can get, the better. It's been a long and slow climb for the CFL on the U.S. broadcasts over the last few years, but each year's deal has improved over the last's, and this one looks like the best in quite some time. Here are the key details, from the league's release:

Every Canadian Football League game this season will be available live to fans in the United States thanks to a new multi-year agreement with ESPN, which was announced today.

"We are thrilled for our fans in the United States that the ESPN networks will be the exclusive home of our league there," said Mark Cohon, Commissioner of the CFL.

"This is a powerful showcase for our talented athletes, our exciting brand of football, and the CFL itself, a league with a proud history but, more importantly, a bright future."

A minimum of 17 regular season games and the Eastern and Western Finals will be televised live on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNEWS. The 102nd Grey Cup will be televised live exclusively on ESPN2. All other CFL games will be available to fans live on ESPN3 across computers, smartphones, tablets and connected devices.

"Since the early days of ESPN, CFL games have been a valued part of our programming lineup," said Burke Magnus, Senior Vice President, Programming Acquisitions. "I'm proud to see our relationship continue as we strive to serve football fans 365 days a year."

And here's the schedule of televised games in July (all others are on ESPN3 only):

The number of televised regular-season games (17) is actually a slight decrease from last year, which saw 14 regular-season games on NBCSN and five on ESPN2. However, ESPN's networks tend to be more widely available and more watched than NBCSN, and having exclusivity with one network can also be a big advantage; it may lead to additional discussion of the CFL on ESPN's SportsCenter or analysis programs. Even more importantly, this provides American CFL fans with a consistent way to watch; those who depended on WatchESPN's streaming service last year weren't able to watch the NBCSN games. As WatchESPN allows for streaming of ESPN's TV channels in addition to ESPN3-only games, that won't be an issue this year.

Another big step forward in this agreement? The ESPN deal will televise the East and West finals live (last year, NBCSN tape-delayed both) as well as the Grey Cup. It's always been difficult to get solid US TV coverage in the fall of the CFL season, as both college football and the NFL are in full swing, so this agreement to show the CFL's most important playoff games live is significant.

Why does the CFL need U.S. TV coverage? Well, it's not particularly about gaining south-of-the-border fans, although that certainly can be useful. (Related: south-of-the-border fans interested in the CFL's differences might want to check out the introduction to the league I did this week with Sports Illustrated's Martin Rickman or The MMQB's week-long CFL coverage.) It's primarily about U.S. visibility to encourage potential players to think of the CFL as an option, and a strong ESPN deal is huge on that front. It's also about allowing current players' friends and families to watch them (aiding current player happiness and retention), and a consistent deal with full WatchESPN coverage is big on that front.

The multi-year deal here may be especially nice, though. Hilariously, for the last two years, Twitter user Andy Pierce has beaten the league's release to elements of the CFL's U.S. broadcast deal, thanks to ESPN posting details of upcoming games on their advance schedule before the official announcement. Now we officially know where the CFL will be for at least two seasons, though, and ESPN's networks are a pretty great spot for the league's purposes. The CFL isn't going to become a major American sport any time soon, but it is gaining plenty of popularity south of the border (especially in the summer when there's a lack of other high-level football), and broadcast deals like this one show that. They also benefit the league from both a recruitment standpoint and a retention one, so this is good news, everyone.