The English Premier League kicked off this weekend, but if you're a Canadian without an extensive sports television package, you can be forgiven for not noticing. Of the 10 Premier League fixtures this weekend, exactly one was available on one of the three basic Canadian sports channels (TSN, Rogers Sportsnet and The Score). That was today's 4-0 win by Blackpool over Wigan, which was certainly thrilling, but hardly the most anticipated matchup of the weekend.
What about those other nine games? Well, two of them (Tottenham - Manchester City today and Manchester United - Newcastle on Monday) are available on TSN 2. You can make an argument that that's reasonable, as TSN 2 has a fair bit of quality content these days, but it is still an extra cost ($5 per month with one other channel on Shaw). Six of the games are on Setanta Sports, with two being carried live (Aston Villa - West Ham today and Liverpool - Arsenal tomorrow) and the other four as same-day replays today. That's not too bad for those looking for comprehensive coverage, but Setanta does cost $14.95 per month on Shaw.
What's particularly unfortunate for West Coast Premiership fans is the timing of the games. Often when games are on an expensive channel, you can get around subscribing by heading out to a sports bar to find them. That works out for everyone; the bar pays for the channel, you pay for the food and drink and you get to watch a game in a good atmosphere. That's tougher with soccer, though, as Premier League starts on the West Coast range from 4:30 a.m. (a few games) to 7 a.m. (most games) to 9 a.m. (the occasional late game), and I haven't yet found a Lower Mainland bar that's willing to open at 7 in the morning (if you do know of one, let me know in the comments or via e-mail!)
The most egregious violation, however, is the Chelsea - West Bromwich Albion match, which is being shown today on a new channel, Sportsnet OneR. I'd love to give you a price for that, but as Bruce Dowbiggin of The Globe and Mail points out, the only television provider that the channel is even being offered on at this point is Rogers (coincidentally, its corporate parent). According to their website, Rogers doesn't even offer cable in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon or Nunavut. Thus, if you live in 10 of Canada's 13 provinces and territories, there is no way to watch the Chelsea - West Bromwich Albion game without resorting to an Internet feed.
I don't know the details of the negotiations between Rogers and the other television providers, so it's hard to definitively assign blame to one side or the other. There's more than enough to go around, though, and if the TSN2 spat is anything to go by, it could be months before a deal is reached. That doesn't just hurt EPL fans, as PPP pointed out: the channel's also slated to carry Jays and Raptors games, as well as games from the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators. Canadian hockey fans are devoted enough that they'll probably force cable providers to pick up Sportsnet One by the time that season starts in October, but it's unfortunate that Rogers is banking on that and it's even more unfortunate that most of the country won't be able to watch crucial EPL games until then.
The people who I have the most sympathy for are the young fans, though. I really got into the EPL in the late 90s, when Sportsnet would run triple-headers on their basic channel on Saturdays. That was fantastic; sure, you had to get up early, but you could watch some of the best teams and players in the world. Losing some sleep seemed like a small price to pay. Now, instead of just sleep, you have to shell out
big bucks to watch more than one Premiership game per week, and you have to hope and pray that your cable provider deigns to carry the channels games are on. Most existing EPL fans will probably either pay up or find workarounds, but I've got a feeling it will be a lot tougher for new fans to get interested in the game when it demands a substantial financial investment up front. That could hurt soccer's growth in Canada, and it's a shame that the fans are being targeted in the name of big money.