TLN makes its biggest investment ever in Serie A deal

Network president Aldo Di Felice said the partnership "bucks the trend" of putting soccer behind paywalls.

Aldo Di Felice says TLN is hoping to save soccer from “descending into a paywall television hell.”

Di Felice, president of TLN, admitted with a chuckle that those harsh words aren’t entirely his, referencing a recent trend piece in Deadspin, which asserted that soccer on U.S. TV was “going straight to a fiery, paywalled hell.” Hyperbole aside, Di Felice was adamant that TLN is bucking an ongoing and increasing trend of soccer moving to premium subscription networks and OTT platforms like DAZN (which recently acquired the exclusive Canadian rights to the Champions League Soccer).

On Aug. 13, TLN officially regained the Canadian broadcast rights to Serie A Italian League Soccer. According to Di Felice, it’s the biggest investment TLN has ever made (although he wouldn’t talk dollars and cents). The three-year deal will see TLN broadcast 380 matches per season from mid-August until mid-May (DAZN Canada also holds the digital rights on its OTT platform). TLN’s first broadcast of the Serie A matches will take place this coming Saturday (Aug. 18).

Serie A is an important league for TLN, said Di Felice, as it first held the rights to Serie A’s games when the network was founded 34 years ago (six years ago, the rights went to specialty net BeIN Sports). The dream back then, said Di Felice, was to provide a platform for soccer fans, mainly of Italian descent, to celebrate their love of the game. “I remember as a kid travelling down to Maple Leaf Gardens, everyone paying $10 to watch soccer on screens in a smoke-filled arena,” he said. “For the last few years, we’ve been constantly knocking on this door. This is right up our alley and goes back to our mission to create great Italian and Hispanic programming.”

Di Felice said the makeup of the league is also likely to attract people from all cultures to the broadcasts. More than half the players in the league are non-Italians. Notably, said Di Felice, they’re from Latin America, as well as Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Anyone who follows soccer seriously, he said, should be excited. “The best players from Latin America are playing in the Italian league.”

Of course, there’s one key player in the Serie A league who might even attract non-superfans. Serie A’s Juventos club happens to be the new team of soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who made the sudden switch to Serie A from La Liga. “Suddenly the Italian league is the hottest league in the world,” said Di Felice.

(Ronaldo, a brand magnet who has attracted sponsorships with everyone from KFC and TagHeur to Egyptian Steel, has a social media presence alone that is estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion).

Ronaldo’s massive popularity, which seems to transcend the sport, isn’t the only sign that soccer is more than a niche sport in a country mostly associated with hockey. Last month’s FIFA World Cup drew a total of 25.8 million viewers across Canada, with 9.3 million viewers tuning into the final match alone. Canada is also gearing up for the launch of the Canadian Premier League in 2019.

There is increasing mainstream appeal for the sport, and TLN is “relatively low-cost and widely distributed,” said Di Felice. Because of increasing rights costs, “the only way for investors to recoup their investments wasn’t through sponsorship or advertising, but through subscription. We’re going to give it a go and entice the advertiser community and the sponsor community to embrace this property that we’re making widely available,” he said.

In addition to soccer matches, Di Felice said the network is currently developing a plan to create programming that is intertwined with soccer culture – “everything from music, food, celebrity gossip, all of that is going to be integrated into everything we do.” No plans are finalized yet, he said, but the network is at work to determine how to capitalize on the soccer deal.