CFL Week a much-needed win for the league

The thing about the choir is they really can sing if you preach to them.

The Canadian Football League is the religion of choice in Saskatchewan and so it made perfect sense to hold the first ever CFL Week in the city of Regina. The Roughriders have one of the league’s largest and most rabid fan bases – they’d bristle at the suggestion that there’s even a debate – and it was reasonable to expect they’d be not only receptive, but welcoming.

Rider Nation didn’t disappoint. Crowds flocked to the Evraz Place, the one-stop-shopping location for everything related to CFL Week. They packed autograph sessions, embraced fan events and filled up the benches at the combine, cheering hometown kids and applauding good performances – changing the dynamic of what can sometimes be a mundane series of testing events.

The league also received plenty of positive publicity from across the country. In addition to blanket coverage in Saskatchewan, mainstream media from more than half the league’s teams invested precious resources to make the trip to Regina and several more took advantage of a level of off-season access never before provided by the league: this time of the off-season is typically a wasteland for CFL news.

Without the immediate pressure of wins and losses, the players and coaches were far more relaxed than usual. That made for better stories, the vast majority of which were positive for the league. Part of that was planning, like bringing Warren Moon to town, and some of it was just dumb luck: former Rider quarterback Darian Durant’s impromptu and heartfelt thank you to fans after an autograph session was a moment of genuine emotion.

The league has worked hard over the past several years to convey an increased level of professionalism and those efforts were evident during CFL Week. The combine, the mid-week Hall-of-Fame announcement and the media events all had a polished feel. Things ran on time and the wifi worked. Both big picture and small, the league got this right.

At the same time, they managed to preserve what has always made the CFL great: a dedication to maintaining a real connection between the people that play and run the game and those that support it. Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell – a Rider villain – did a series of school appearances and gave a series of interviews that made it clear he’s embraced the league’s grassroots ethos. B.C.’s Wally Buono ate his lunch while chatting with fans in a food court. The Ticats Kent Austin, still a Saskatchewan hero, signed autographs and posed for pictures.

That balance of corporate professionalism and quaint provincialism is tough to strike. It is, however, somewhat easier in Regina which has both the smallest population of any CFL but will soon open an incredibly impressive (and wildly expensive) new stadium.

While the league wouldn’t immediately commit to holding CFL Week next year, there is almost universal consensus that they should. Even fans on social media – not always the most supportive lot – seemed to recognize that something cool was happening as the week progressed. Players and coaches, some of whom grumbled about having to travel to the prairies, were won over, too.

Like all things in their infancy, CFL Week is fragile and there’s no guarantee that other markets will support it in quite the same way Regina did. In some respects, returning to Saskatchewan to set the mold before taking the show to other strong markets like Winnipeg and Hamilton would make some sense.

Whatever comes next, the CFL needed this. After a rocky Grey Cup in Toronto, one that featured a slew of negative press regarding ticket giveaways and a tone-deaf commissioner, the league needed a win. They took a chance on CFL Week and there would have been plenty of snickering and second-guessing had it flopped.

The league still has its issues but its willingness to try something new and succeed is the first sign in some time that the CFL has the wherewithal to tackle those challenges. And it was a reminder that, despite those problems, there’s an awful lot to like.

Drew Edwards is the founder of 3DownNation but has since wandered off. Beard in the photo not exactly as shown.