Five reasons to keep the East Division

Editor’s note: read John Hodge’s piece on why the CFL should abolish the current format and go two one division.

The East Division sucks. There is no denying it. The first-place Ottawa Redblacks would be in fourth if they played in the West Division. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

Along with the pathetic play of every team east of Manitoba has come renewed talk about scrapping the divisions or reseeding teams for the playoffs. The thought being that it is unfair that a team like Edmonton could finish with a better record than every team in the East and still have to go on the road for the playoffs.

I understand that point, but while fans clamour for changes because of what they perceive as an unfair advantage, we see no desire from the league to make such a drastic change, and for many good reasons.

1. Faulty premise

The Eskimos could very well finish with a better record than every team in the East Division, but saying they might and them actually doing it are two different things entirely. Since the CFL instituted the crossover in 1997, only twice (2003, 2008) has the Western crossover team had a better record than their Eastern counterpart. In every other instance, the second-place team in the East has had an equal or better record.

Also, in three such instances since 1997, a team in the East was the victim of their division’s success. In 1999, the Argos finished third in their division with a 9-9 record behind the 11-7 Hamilton Tiger-Cats and 12-6 Montreal Alouettes, while the Eskimos also finished third, but with a 6-12 record. In 2001, the Alouettes finished third in the East with a 9-9 record behind the 11-7 Hamilton Tiger-Cats and 14-4 Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Eskimos finished first in the West with a 9-9 record. And just last year, we saw BC finish third with a 7-11 record, while Toronto also finished third with a 10-8 record.

Also, there have been two teams in CFL history to win the Grey Cup with a record under .500 and both came from the West. At 8-10, the BC Lions and Calgary Stampeders each won the Grey Cup in back-to-back years, with the Lions winning over the Montreal Alouettes in 2000 and the Stamps beating the Bombers in 2001. The East hasn’t seen an under-.500 team make it to the Grey Cup since 1984, when the 6-9-1 Hamilton Tiger-Cats made to the championship game.

The West has been the dominant division for the vast majority of the 21st century, but there have been years where they have benefitted from the current system just as much as their Eastern counterparts. There was no outrage 15 years ago when the roles were reversed and the East was better than the West, or last year when three East teams finished above .500. Looking to reshape the structure of the playoffs because of one season is a knee-jerk reaction.

2. Not just the CFL

Look across the sporting landscape and you will tons of examples of divisional or conference disparity. In the NFL, four teams (New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Denver) in the 16-team AFC have represented the conference in 17 of the last 21 Super Bowls. New England has won their division, the AFC East, an incredible 13 times since 2001, mainly because the rest of the teams in their division (Buffalo, Miami, New York Jets) have sucked. But no one is really talking about making changes to how the NFL is structured. The NFL has also had an under-.500 team host a playoff game when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West and hosted the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. That ruffled some feathers but the general consensus was that winning your division was still important, and even at 7-9, the Seahawks deserved the home game because they won their division.

In the NBA, it has long been accepted that the Western Conference is superior to the Eastern Conference and has been since Michael Jordan retired for the second time in 1998. We have seen 12 teams make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with sub.-500 records while no team has made the Western Conference playoffs with sub-.500 record since 1999, and 13 West teams have missed the playoffs with above-.500 records compared to just two teams in the East. Also, twice in the last 18 seasons we have seen every playoff team in the West win 50 games and that has never happened in the East during that span. The West has also won 12 of the last 18 Larry O’Brien trophies, with one East team, the Miami Heat, winning three of the six titles the West did not win. All of this adds up to the West being better than the East for nearly as long as the same has been true in the CFL, but you rarely hear anyone talk about reseeding the playoffs in the NBA like you do in the CFL.

Back to football, we have the most dominant conference in college sports: the SEC. But that dominance is pretty one-sided, with three schools — LSU, Florida and Alabama — winning 17 of the conference’s 24 championships since they instituted a conference title game in 1992. Three teams in a (now) 14-team conference have won 71 per cent of the championships. If you take it just a little further, those three schools account for 25 appearances in the conference title game over those 24 years and just six times did one of those teams not play for the SEC championship.

The CFL is not alone in having one side of the league be more dominant than the other, and we barely hear a peep about changing the format of the NBA, NFL or SEC from fans of those leagues. The CFL is no different, and while we have a Calgary juggernaut right now, don’t forget that it wasn’t too long ago that the class of the league resided in the East Division in the Montreal Alouettes.

3. Marketing

As much as it sucks to say, an all-West (or all-East) Grey Cup would be a massive headache for the people in the league office. Fans in Alberta might want to see the Esks and Stamps duke it out for the title, but very few else would. Same if the title game was the highest stakes battle of Ontario ever between the Ticats and Argos. Fans of those two teams would be in heaven, but seven other fanbases would probably not care. When you get the East-West game — as we have ever year — even fans whose teams aren’t in it can route territorially or even against their hated rival. You lose that with an all-one-division championship game, and ratings and ticket sales would surely be affected. The league needs all the help it can get when it comes to marketing this game from coast to coast, and one way to ensure all fans stay engaged is to keep the current format.

4. Tradition

This might seem like a lame reason, but tradition matters in the CFL. If you say it doesn’t, then you must also think we should get rid of the Canadian ratio, the single-point, make the field smaller, add a down, subtract a player, allow for fair catches and move the goalposts to the back of the end zone. Many of the things that make the CFL unique are around because of tradition. The East-West divisional alignment and playoff format is just another part of what makes the CFL the CFL. Losing that would be like losing any of the above and very few, if anyone, wants that.

5. Rivalries

Piggybacking off tradition, the rivalries in the CFL are a big part of what makes this league what it is. If divisions are scrapped, those long-standing rivalries would be affected because the league would have to go with a balanced schedule. An unbalanced schedule in larger leagues works, but in a league with just nine teams and one division, the schedule would have to be balanced. That means Esks-Ticats would be just as important as Esks-Stamps, and Lions-Ticats would be just as important as Argos-Ticats. The rivalries would still exists, but something would be lost when every team played every team the same amount of times. And make no mistake, that would have to happen. It makes no sense to keep the current unbalanced nature of the schedule if the divisions no longer existed. And a CFL where Riders-Redblacks is as important as Riders-Bombers is a CFL I do not want to see.

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