OneSoccer accuses Rogers of acting anti-competitively by refusing to carry the streaming service over cable

Oscar Lopez, the CEO of Mediapro Canada, poses on the broadcast set at OneSoccer Studios in Mississauga, Ontario. on November 10, 2021.JP MOCZULSKI/The Globe and the Mail

OneSoccer, the burgeoning Canadian streaming service that broadcast the men’s national soccer team’s triumphant run to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, has complained to the Federal Radio and Television Administration that Rogers Communications Inc. is engaging in anti-competitive behavior by it refuses to carry the channel over its cable lineup because it competes with Roger’s own Sportsnet service.

In a filing with Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications known as “improper preference application,” OneSoccer alleges that Rogers is acting to prevent the soccer service from “achieving financial stability that carriage on Rogers Cable would provide.”

The filing suggests that Rogers’ proposed merger with Shaw Communications Inc., which was conditionally approved by the CRTC in March, will make things worse for independent companies like OneSoccer that are trying to compete with the expanded company’s services.

OneSoccer launched in 2019 as an over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, a direct-to-consumer offering delivered over the internet, designed to bypass traditional gatekeepers like cable companies.

But while global OTTs like Netflix have turned the TV industry on its head by allowing viewers to free themselves from the unwieldy bundle of cables and select only the services they want, the dispute between OneSoccer and Rogers underscores a little-discussed dynamic of this Evolving Ecosystem: Even as businesses and consumers rave about streaming, a significant portion of home television is still viewed live, with millions of people tuning in to television programming that’s transmitted through the pipes of old-fashioned (albeit high-tech) cable distribution systems.

OneSoccer argues that it needs access to all of Rogers’ millions of customers if it is to be financially viable.

“We are in the midst of a transition from the legacy cable platforms to the new content aggregators through OTTs,” Oscar Lopez, CEO of Mediapro Canada, which owns OneSoccer, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “We have viewers on all platforms. That’s why we want to be present on all possible screens and platforms.”

“Some of the audience wants to see the content on a traditional platform,” he explained. “You want to type a (number) into the remote control and watch a 24-hour linear channel. They don’t want to have 10, 15 platforms.”

The filing notes that sports is “the largest revenue generator among Canadian discretionary broadcast services” – with Sportsnet generating more than $3.3 billion in revenue from 2016-2020 and Bell Media’s TSN generating more than 2.3 billion over the same period earned billions of dollars. But the sector “is dominated by two players,” both of which are part of much larger companies that have powerful cable and Internet TV operations.

“There are very few independent sports broadcasters in Canada. The last major independent sports broadcaster in Canada was The Score, which was bought by Sportsnet in 2013.”

OneSoccer made the case for the promotion with Rogers, working with the company’s media department and sharing broadcasts of the Canada men’s national team’s World Cup qualifiers with Sportsnet last fall and spring, which the filing said was “to demonstrate audience demand for Canadian football.” The broadcasts drew an average of more than a million viewers, with the crucial match in March averaging more than 1.6 million viewers.

“These viewership figures are on par with – or exceed – other sports such as the Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Raptors or NHL national broadcasts,” OneSoccer filings read.

“If Rogers Cable were a separate company [cable company], it would want to offer highly desirable Canadian content to its customers. However, it is part of a vertically integrated company and other departments will be concerned about OneSoccer’s rise as a viable broadcaster.”

The broadcaster owns the lion’s share of Canadian football broadcasting rights including all national team matches outside of the FIFA World Cup, Canadian Premier League, Canadian Championship, CONCACAF Gold Cup Tournament, CONCACAF W Championship , the semi-professional League1 Canada and other programs.

According to OneSoccer, Rogers has offered to add the service as an app to its Ignite online service, but that doesn’t compare to the favorable terms Rogers grants to Sportsnet, which bundles the channel with other sports programming on its mainline cable schedule.

Telus’ optics service is the only major TV system currently broadcasting OneSoccer. The broadcaster says it is currently negotiating the promotion with Bell. If those talks fail, she intends to file a similar complaint with the CRTC.

But Rogers’ growing influence with Shaw’s imminent takeover is of particular concern for OneSoccer. “Rogers’ ability to reduce the effectiveness of competitors on its sports broadcasts has been enhanced by the proposed acquisition of Shaw,” the filing reads.

Upon completion of the merger, the filing states, Rogers will have 47 percent of all English-speaking cable subscribers in Canada, and its network will span 80 percent of English Canada homes. “With such a large number of English-language cable television customers, a refusal by Rogers Cable to carry a competing sports service will make that service very difficult to make financially viable.”

When asked by The Globe on Tuesday, a spokesman for Rogers said the company has not yet seen the filing. On Wednesday, the CRTC told The Globe that “in accordance with our usual practices and procedures, Rogers was indeed duplicated on the application when it was submitted to us.” In a subsequent email exchange with The Globe, the company declined to comment at the time.

The CRTC doesn’t have the power to force Rogers to wear OneSoccer, but it could fine the company. It could also bring the two parties together for mediated negotiations.

Mr Lopez argued that Rogers was unlikely to be concerned about a customer revolt over the price of OneSoccer. The service is sold directly to consumers for $10 a month, but Mr. Lopez said he expects the total cost if added to a Rogers customer bill would be less than $12 a year.

Still, the lower subscription revenue per user could be worth the trade-off for OneSoccer if it achieved widespread adoption in millions of homes by increasing the prices it can charge advertisers. It would also allow the Canadian teams and leagues whose games are broadcast on the channel to charge more for sponsorships.

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