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CFL riding high on new TV deal which could get money-losing teams out of the red

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The gold-wrapped TV deal the Canadian Football League secured last year will make financial life a lot easier for every franchise this season.

But for a few weeks this spring, it also played a significant role in a labour dispute that could have stopped the season from getting off the ground.

TSN/RDS and the CFL signed a new contract last year that runs through 2018, reportedly worth in the neighbourhood of $40 million per season, more than double the previous five-year agreement.

That extra cash is great news for money-losing franchises like the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

"We needed a deal that would dramatically change the economics of our league and its teams and that’s what this does," league commissioner Mark Cohon said last year when it was announced.

"This will allow losing teams to start making money and to make some investments in their future, whether it’s new stadiums or practice facilities. It’s definitely transformative from an economic standpoint."

But the flip side of the coin was the serious pre-season friction with the CFL Players' Association the lucrative new agreement provoked.

Players wanted a bigger slice of the TV pie than the league was offering and in the end settled for a $600,000 bump in the salary cap to $5 million, more than a million short of what they initially sought, although only $200,000 less than their final offer to the league.

But labour peace has now been guaranteed for the next five years and TSN president Stewart Johnston wants to look for even more ways to give fans an up-close-and-personal look at the CFL this season as the new deal kicks in.

"How do we create better access for a viewers?" he said as the CFL prepares to start the 2014 season with the Toronto Argonauts visiting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Thursday.

He said he league has already been very co-operative in allowing the network to put microphones on players, put cameras in locker-rooms for speeches and Grey Cup pre-game and post-game talks and putting cameras in less traditional places on the field.

"Look for us to continue to look for new ways to innovate when it comes to that type of thing," he said.

This year former Bombers coach Paul LaPolice will move to a full-time member of the "CFL on TSN" panel from the part-time role he occupied last season. Rod Smith will host the show.

"He (LaPolice) has shown to be an incredible asset to bring a coach's perspective to our panel as we try to tell those stories," said Johnston.

The panel is expected to be live in Ottawa for the expansion Redblacks opener and Hamilton as their new stadium is christened.

The 2014 CFL broadcast schedule will expand to 86 games in 2014, with the addition of the Ottawa expansion franchise and the playoff games, including the Grey Cup.

"We're thrilled with that expansion to begin with. Having nine more games on the schedule in and of itself is a huge benefit to TSN (and) expanding to another major Canadian market that will generate interest not only in the home team but the league as a whole is a benefit to TSN."

The new agreement gives TSN and RDS exclusive media rights to all CFL exhibition, regular-season and playoff games — including the Grey Cup — as well as the league’s annual draft and combine. In addition to broadcast and digital rights, it includes exclusive radio rights to the Grey Cup for TSN and Team radio stations.

"The deal is an incredibly important component of TSN's overall programming schedule," said the network president. "It is an exclusive relationship with a top-tier property that delivers incredibly compelling all-Canadian content and culminates in the biggest show on Canadian soil, the Grey Cup."

The CFL is a marquee property for TSN, which lost the NHL national rights earlier this year after Rogers paid $5.2-billion for a 12-year deal.

Sports increasingly is seen as the premium product for broadcasters in the competitive multi-channel environment.

"It has to be consumed live, there are very few folks who want to PVR a sporting event and watch it later," said Johnston. "That translates into an increased value proposition for our advertisers."

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