CFL brings together stars – and rivals – for big promo push

On Tuesday night, Ticats kick returner Brandon Banks ate dinner with men who, under normal circumstances, would be trying to knock his head off clean off his slender shoulders.

To his left was B.C. Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian. On his right, Saskatchewan defensive end Shawn Lemon. Former teammate and now Toronto Argonaut Bryan Hall was a couple of seats away, talking constantly.

“I was sitting at the table thinking, ‘in a couple of months these guys are going to be trying to kill me,’” Banks laughed. “But it’s been a lot of fun getting to know guys.”

Banks was one of 50 players from all nine teams who were brought to Toronto over the past two days for series of photo shoots and promotional activities designed to help boost the CFL’s profile – and that of its stars. In past seasons, TSN and league promos were filmed during training camp with a limited number of players and resources.

Not this time around. Receiver Luke Tasker, another of the seven Ticats in attendance (Simoni Lawrence, Ted Laurent, Zach Collaros, C.J. Gable and Chad Owens were the others) said the set up was vastly different from his previous three seasons with the club and included a session on a Mississauga sound stage featuring state-of-the-art cameras.

“We’re getting the big time treatment,” Tasker said. “It does feel different, especially when compared to the shoots we’ve done in the past. It seems like it’s at a higher level.”

The players were flown in from across North America, put up in a downtown hotel and given a stipend of around $1,000 for their time. There was a lounge with an impressive food spread and each player received a bag full of hats, shirts and other clothing items. The cost was shared by the league, broadcaster TSN and new apparel sponsor Adidas, who will unveil new uniforms next month.

Banks modelled the new look for his photo shoot – which included a body-mounted 360 degree camera – but was then sworn to secrecy. He was able to provide a quick review, however.

“I love them, I really do. It’s a different look and they got a little bit more swagger to it,” he said

“It’s not crazy but you can tell that changes have been made.

“Feel good, play good. I can’t wait to show everybody.”

The investment by league and its partners comes at a critical time. While attendance remains strong, television rating for broadcaster TSN have declined the past two seasons. A recent survey of Canadian sports found that interest in the CFL remained high – behind hockey, on par with baseball and well ahead of the NBA and MLS – but that its support was weakest in the critical 18-to-34 age bracket.

The league and its teams have invested heavily in social media and web content – Collaros took over the league’s Twitter account for a question and answer session with fans on Tuesday – and is hoping to leverage this week’s sessions to a significant amount of quality – and innovative – content.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by players, who are more than willing to do their part, says Tasker.

“You get a sense that the league is going in the right direction, that it’s getting bigger and stronger,” he said.