The big news revealed on Thursday by CBC President Hubert Lacroix was that the public broadcaster will no longer compete for the broadcast rights of professional sports leagues. However, I think this was a largely symbolic move by Lacroix. In reality CBC hasn’t been competitive for professional sports rights for years and has slowly dropped every pro sports they once broadcast. The Blue Jays first disappeared in 2003, before a few games returned to the CBC in 2007 and 2008. CBC also picked up Raptors broadcasts in 2007, but only kept them for two seasons. The CFL ended its 52 year run on the CBC in 2007. And while curling isn’t a fully professional sport (yet, at least), it has ratings most sports in Canada could only wish for. Curling’s signature events, branded the Season of Champions, left CBC for TSN in 2008. This summer the CBC will mark the last of the CBC showing the FIFA World Cup, which is headed to CTV in 2018. So, again, in reality the CBC has not truly competed for professional sports rights for a few years now. The exception was Hockey Night in Canada. Last November it became clear CBC would no longer compete for that either.
The more troubling aspect of Lacroix’s statement, which the media has mostly ignored, is that the CBC will only consider broadcasting sports where it can break even or turn a profit. I’ve always thought that the role of the CBC in Canadian sports broadcasting was to fill a void left by the private networks. Since presumably TSN and Sportsnet also don’t broadcast many sports that fail to break even, this could leave some sports completely off the Canadian airwaves. One recent example is the IAAF Diamond League, featuring Track & Field’s signature events. CBC dropped coverage two years ago following government funding cuts. No other network has picked up coverage of the events since. It seems like the sports that the CBC will most likely drop, are also the least likely to be picked up by a private network. And that’s sad for these amateur sports that rely on some TV coverage to generate interest among the youth, Canada’s potential future Olympians.
The most puzzling thing about the CBC’s statement is what constitutes “professional”, which the CBC will not compete for anymore, and what constitutes “national interest”? Obviously the NHL is professional and the Olympics are of national interest, but what about the Rogers Cup. Tennis is a professional sport, but the event is arguably of national interest. And it also makes no mention of sub-licensing, which CBC has touted as a key component to its long-term sports-broadcasting viability. Will the CBC continue to seek sub-licensing deals, as they have with Sportsnet for the World Curling Tour and NHL.