CFL King of Pro Sports Parity

For many CFL detractors, the league’s size has long since been an area of criticism. “A professional league with nine teams?” they ask, “how is that even a thing?” Worse yet is their criticism of the league’s playoff structure. “Six outta nine teams make the playoffs – how does anyone take this league seriously?”

In this writer’s opinion, the fact that the CFL’s top six teams make the playoffs every season is a positive thing. But that’s not what this piece is about.

This piece is about demonstrating how, even with the CFL’s size and playoff structure taken into account, it boasts a higher level of parity than any of North America’s four major sports leagues.

The graph below indicates the number of times each of the CFL’s nine teams have qualified for the playoffs, division finals, and/or Grey Cup games over the past ten seasons. As we can see, each of the league’s nine teams have qualified for all three at least once, including the relatively new Ottawa RedBlacks.

CFL Graph

Compare this level of parity to the CFL’s American counterpart. The National Football League, with six of each conference’s sixteen teams playoff-bound each season, has seen four clubs fail to reach the playoffs over the past decade. With the odds of qualifying for the playoffs in the NFL (37.5 percent) just slightly smaller than those of qualifying for a CFL division final (44.4 percent), this would be the equivalent of a CFL team failing to qualify for the East or West Final in each of the past ten seasons. In reality, all CFL nine teams has done this at least once since 2006. If you only count teams that have been around for the past decade (ie. discluding Ottawa) every team has done it at least twice.

The disparity between the leagues increases dramatically when we take a look at the CFL’s Grey Cup track record in comparison to the NFL’s divisional playoff round. Eight of the NFL’s 32 teams qualify for the divisional playoffs (25 percent), while two of the CFL’s nine teams qualify for the Grey Cup (22.2 percent; 25 percent from 2006-2013 in an eight team league). A whopping nine NFL teams (28.1 percent of the league) haven’t qualified for the divisional round of the playoffs since 2006, a time period that has seen all nine CFL teams qualify for the Grey Cup. And, as was the case with East/West Final appearances, every team has done it at least twice if Ottawa isn’t considered.

The greatest example of league disparity between the CFL and NFL is found in Super Bowl berths since 2006. The NFL’s National Football Conference (NFC) is fairly balanced (see below), with eight different teams taking part in the league’s championship game over the past ten seasons.


The American Football Conference (AFC), however, is tremendously unbalanced (see below).


Just five different AFC teams have qualified for the Super Bowl over the past ten seasons. For perspective, the CFL has had five different teams qualify for the past ten Grey Cups from the East Division alone. The number of teams currently in the NFL’s AFC: sixteen. The number of teams currently in the CFL’s East Division: four.


Compare these figures to the National Hockey League. The twenty most recent Stanley Cup Finals have been won by just eleven different teams, the equivalent of just five CFL clubs combining to win the past twenty Grey Cups. In reality, seven different CFL teams have hoisted Earl Grey’s mug during this period. Of those seven, six have hoisted it multiple times.

And while every CFL team has appeared in at least ten Grey Cup games and won at least four*, twelve of the NHL’s thirty teams have never won a Stanley Cup. Of those twelve, six have never qualified for the Stanley Cup Finals.

Major League Baseball features even less parity than the NHL. Just seventeen of MLB’s thirty teams have appeared in the World Series since the lockout of 1994. Of those seventeen, only nine have won it all. Five of these championships have been won by the New York Yankees, the equivalent of one CFL team winning five championships from 1996 to 2015. In reality, none won more than four.

Eight of Major League Baseball’s thirty teams have never won a World Series. Of these eight teams, six have existed for more than 37 years.

The most shocking example of league disparity is found in the NBA. Since 1984, just nine different teams have won an NBA championship. The Los Angeles Lakers (7), Chicago Bulls (6), and San Antonio Spurs (5) account for eighteen of the past thirty NBA championships alone. This is the equivalent of one CFL team winning a stunning twelve Grey Cups over a twenty-year period. Even the great ratio-less Baltimore Stallions of 1994 and 1995 would have had a difficult time going on such a dominant run.

Thirteen of the NBA’s thirty member clubs – almost half the league – have never won a championship. Eleven have never advanced to the NBA Finals.

Comparing the CFL to the NFL, NHL, MLB, and/or NBA will never be 100 percent fair due to the league’s unique size and structure. The research completed for this piece also lacks depth in places – calculating the full post-season histories of all 122 NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA teams would simply have been far too cumbersome – but the proof is still in the pudding.

The CFL has enjoyed more parity than all four major North American sports leagues for several decades. And this is a positive thing. In the CFL, every team has a reasonable chance to at least appear in the Grey Cup game every November. Fans are never more than twelve months away from possibly seeing their team win a championship. As best exemplified by the 2015 Ottawa RedBlacks, there are no three, five or ten-year rebuilds in the CFL. There are only one-year reloads. And that’s just a part of what makes our league so great.

*this is only true if one considers the history of the Ottawa Rough Riders to be part of the Ottawa RedBlacks franchise; technically this is not the case, though it makes for an apt comparison for the purposes of this article

John Hodge, Blue Bomber Talk

Twitter: @BlueBomberTalk


John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.