New CFL partnership aims to fill hole in millenial fan base

One indicator the CFL’s new marketing strategy might work: I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

The league announced a partnership with The Whistle Sports Network on Wednesday morning, linking themselves with an American company – the deal was announced by Whistle at a Apple-style launch event in New York City, of all places – that specializes is reaching an audience that has been notoriously tough to reach for the league: young people.

The league release trumpeting the deal wasn’t even subtle about their intentions. “New partnership aims to connect CFL with more millenials,” it reads, using a word my old fogey word processor doesn’t even recognize as real. As a 40-something raised on a steady diet of cynicism and sarcasm, my first instinct is to ridicule this idea mercilessly: it’s an American company teaching a Canadian league how to look cool.

Except the millenial generation seems to be largely unaffected by the concept of irony: where I may be inclined to see shameless manipulation, they see harmless fun. And if nothing else, Whistle Sports seems to specialize in fun.

Founded in 2009, the company specializes in creating – and please excuse any Dad-language here – short-form viral videos intended exclusively for social media platforms. While they have partnerships with traditional sports entities like Major League Baseball, most of their success seems to be derived from online stars with names like Dude Perfect (no, I did not make that up) who do things like throw frisbees over stadiums into basketball hoops and drop panda bear mascots into dunk tanks.

There’s nothing remotely cynical about it – there’s is a lot celebrating when these tricks are successful – and Whistle has been astonishingly successful by any measure: 31 million likes on Facebook, 16 million YouTube subscribers, 11 million followers on Instagram, six million on Twitter and four million on Vine. They’ve raised $36 million in financing to date, meaning smart people see harmless fun as good business.

Given the CFL’s traditional demographic – basically me and my Dad – it’s a hardly a surprise they want a piece of this action. The league has been proactive in its social media and online strategy but Whistle operates in a different stratosphere. It’s important to note this is a partnership, not a marketing deal: Whistle clearly sees a lot of potential in a small, quirky league with a reputation for fan accessibility and an entertaining brand of football.

The first offering from the new arrangement features the Ticats Andy Fantuz breaking the world record for one-handed catches in a minute, with Saskatchewan’s Darian Durant and Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell providing the passes. The record was, at one point, set by the NFL’s Odell Beckham Jr in a slick production that was sponsored by VISA, while CFL’s version looks like it was shot by a couple of bros having a good time. The latter is right in the Whistle Sports wheelhouse and, as it happens, far more likely to appeal to millenials.

So there’s a lot of potential here. Football players doing cool things with footballs has already produced some neat stuff, including a kicker who turned a trick shot video into an NFL tryout. As a beat writer who has watched my share of CFL practices, I know many of the players are amazing athletes who do remarkable things with the ball while killing time or having fun. Getting a few of those things on video shouldn’t be hard.

I may be old and jaded and somewhat cynical about a deal that doesn’t target me but I also know this: I’ll be watching.

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