March 12, 2011
The NFL's labour dispute is well underway, with the players' union voting to decertify after contentious last-minute negotiations and a potentially-nasty court battle set to follow. At first glance, this appears to be an issue largely confined to those involved with four-down football; as I wrote earlier, it's unlikely that even a long labour dispute would see a lot of NFL stars come north to the CFL. However, even if the on-field impact of an NFL work stoppage on the CFL is limited, that doesn't mean it won't have other effects on Canadian football. One potential consequence that could particularly mean a lot for the CFL is the possibility of a broader television deal south of the border.
Of course, the CFL has generally had some level of television presence in the U.S., but the league made great strides on that front last year thanks to a deal with the NFL Network. I've heard from a reliable source that the league and NFLN may expand that deal to include many more games in the absence of NFL games this fall. There are definitely plenty of other potential options out there, as the CFL gains a substantial amount of leverage from a cancelled or delayed NFL season, but an increased NFLN presence could make a lot of sense for both sides from this vantage point.
Last year's deal saw NFLN generally picking a "Game of the Week" (it didn't happen every week) to broadcast live nationally south of the border. It seemed to work out well from all standpoints. The audience numbers weren't massive, but NFLN said they were quite happy with them, and their costs definitely can't have been too high (they picked up the TSN feed, featuring production trucks like the one shown above, rather than sending their own trucks and commentators). The CFL games also gave them some live football to mix in with their usual blend of highlights, analysis, reporting and documentaries (they do the occasional Thursday and Saturday night NFL game as well, but most of the network's content isn't live games). From a league perspective, it gave the CFL a presence south of the border on a legitimate channel. That served as a marketing tool to draw new fans to the Canadian game and got people talking about the league in the U.S., but perhaps even more importantly, it proved a valuable recruitment asset; current players could tell their families south of the border when to tune in, perhaps easing some of the isolation it would be easy for them to feel up north, while many future players undoubtedly caught some of the games and now have a better idea what the CFL's all about.
All of those benefits would likely be repeated under an expanded NFLN deal, and the lack of NFL football would likely lead to more fan interest in the CFL games (which in turn leads to better ratings and profits for NFLN and more exposure for the CFL). Moreover, NFLN has arguably the most incentive to make a strong play for the CFL out of any American channel. If there are no NFL games this fall, that would seem to immediately kill all their highlights and game-strategy content. They can obviously still do a fair bit of reporting on the CBA discussions, but there's only so much you can do on that front, so they're going to need football games of some sort unless they want to fill every hour with Top 10 countdowns and historical documentaries. They do have other options too, including the UFL and any other upstart leagues that try to step into the void, but televising those games isn't necessarily exclusive to broadcasting more CFL games.
Moreover, the CFL's history and tradition are certainly good selling points, and they might prove particularly useful ones during a lockout. This isn't replacement football, but rather games that would have been going on anyway and ones that plenty of people care about. Furthermore, the CFL obviously isn't trying to directly compete with the NFL, whereas the UFL and its brethren might harbour hopes of eventually mounting a challenge. That could turn the NFL off from a course of action that might help promote a possible competitor. I know if I'm an NFLN executive, I would much rather try to pitch my bosses on broadcasting games from a friendly Canadian league that poses no threat instead of an American league that could turn into a rival.
What about other networks? Well, it's not hard to picture some of them being interested in picking up more football. CBS, FOX, NBC and ESPN all have the NFL as a cornerstone of their regular sports lineup, plus there are other channels like Versus and Mark Cuban's HDNet (which used to have a UFL deal) that could possibly be looking to get into professional football programming. Regardless of promotion, though, I'm not sure the CFL would be able to draw the massive audiences the major networks are looking for. Yes, it's football, and it's great-quality football, but the CFL doesn't exactly have a track record of putting up massive U.S. television ratings.
Televising other sports like baseball or hockey in those NFL slots likely wouldn't draw the ratings the NFL had, but those sports are already familiar to Americans and would be reasonably sure to draw at least decent ratings; so would sitcom reruns or other traditional programming. It's hard to see a major American network taking a big gamble on a sport that many of its viewers don't even know the rules to. ESPN, as a sports-based network, would seem more likely than any of the other major ones, but they already have a lot of alternative sports properties they could use instead. Versus, HDNet or another lesser-known channel might be more interested in CFL prospects, but they don't necessarily offer as much exposure (or as much money) as NFLN could.
Perhaps the biggest point in favour of a NFLN deal is that the network's viewers, by and large, are already hardcore football fans. Thus, they're both the crowd most likely to be interested in the CFL and the crowd most likely to adapt to it. An expanded deal there certainly isn't going to make the CFL the top sport in the U.S., NFL stoppage or no NFL stoppage, but it's far more realistic than the prospects of a major network deal and it has substantial upside for both parties. We'll see what comes to pass, but the NFL's labour troubles certainly could provide an excellent opportunity for the CFL to gain a larger television profile south of the border; however, the CFL can't just step into the NFL's shoes and programming deals. This could be an important step for the league, but it needs to be kept in perspective.