CFL’s new fantasy game hangs players & experts out to dry

The CFL unveiled its brand new fantasy football game in partnership with TSN last week to much pomp and circumstance. I was excited about the new game — I’d heard rumours that the league was looking into creating a season-long fantasy game after two years of the weekly fantasy game it produced in partnership with TSN.

The season-long format is my preferred style of fantasy football. Season-long fantasy begins with a draft that sees each team select the players with whom they’ll play out the season. Teams can trade players and sign free agents just like in real football, but each player can only belong to one team at any particular time. This makes the season-opening draft of paramount importance.

Fantas-Eh, an independent website, is currently the only place to play season-long CFL fantasy football. I was part of the CFL Podcast Family league last season on Fantas-Eh and had an absolute blast playing the game. The highlight of the year was the draft — a four-hour undertaking that saw all eight teams share a live Skype call as selections were being made. Friendly smack talk persisted throughout the call, peaking when one of us would select a fan favorite from another podcaster’s market. It was great fun that set-up an exciting season ahead, full of fun match-ups and — you guessed it — more friendly smack talk.

My Blue Bomber Talk team eventually placed second in the regular season, though it quickly stumbled in the playoffs. In the end, the boys from Rouge Radio narrowly topped the guys from 2 and Out in a two-part championship game that finished with an ultra-tight final score of 315 to 310.

For me, Fantas-Eh’s season-long format was far more enjoyable than the CFL’s weekly fantasy game, which I’d already played for a year. In weekly fantasy, participants are able to select whichever players they want on a week-to-week basis. There’s a weekly “salary cap” that prevents people from simply selecting the league’s best players every week, adding some strategy to the game. In the end, however, weekly fantasy is more geared to casual players — a game where players needn’t do much research to achieve some level of success on a week-to-week basis.

For these reasons and more, you can imagine my excitement when I heard the CFL was putting together a season-long game for Canadian fantasy football fans to enjoy. I was going to get all of the enjoyment I experienced from Fantas-Eh’s product with all the added bells and whistles of a league-designed product.

I reached out to Onside CFL Fantasy‘s Dave Dawson to discuss the new product and learned that he was not only aware of the new product, but that he was also primed to become involved with the league’s new season-long game.

Dawson, who hosts the country’s only CFL fantasy football podcast with co-host Dan Ukrainetz, was approached by the league during March’s CFL Week to put a pitch together for the new game.

“[The CFL] came to us and said, ‘we’re doing a season-long game and we want your fantasy guide,'” said Dawson. “We pitched them the moon [at CFL Week]. We said, ‘we can do video content, we can do writing.’ We pitched them a huge package.”

Dawson and Ukrainetz produce an annual CFL fantasy draft guide, a unique tool for Canadian fantasy football fanatics to make the most of their preseason drafts. Dawson says the guide takes approximately six weeks to put together with both he and Ukrainetz putting in between 25 and 30 hours of work per week.

The league told Dawson and Ukrainetz that they intended to make the guide available to the new fantasy game’s users for free at the time of launch, assisting them in the draft process. They also indicated to Dawson and Ukrainetz that they wanted to make their show the official fantasy podcast of the CFL.

“We left CFL Week literally on cloud nine,” says Dawson.

Dawson and Ukrainetz submitted their formal written proposal to the CFL on April 5th. In the league’s formal response, sent on April 7th, Dawson and Ukrainetz were again affirmed that they would become the official podcast of CFL fantasy football.

Over the the course of the next two months, these plans slowly began to unravel.

“We found out close to the end of April that the league was no longer interested in procuring our fantasy guide, then, at the end of May, we were informed that the league was no longer willing to endorse our show as the official podcast of CFL fantasy football,” says Dawson, whose connections within the fantasy football world are deep as anyone in the country.

“We are both disappointed, but the league still has a real opportunity in the future to get people into season-long [fantasy],” says Ukrainetz. “Unfortunately we have received a lot of feedback from people who, for now, won’t have draft parties. The head-to-head nature [of season-long fantasy] is what keep fantasy participants engaged year after year.”

The league, despite a high regard for the work of Dawson and Ukrainetz, denies formally offering them the title of the CFL’s official fantasy podcast.

“We think Onside Fantasy guys do excellent work and I bet they will be a great source for those who want to be successful at CFL Fantasy,” said a league representative when asked for comment. “We did not, however, promise anything to Onside Fantasy other than that we would seriously consider their proposal … The correspondence on April 7th and the notion of being the official fantasy podcast was still subject to us concluding terms on a proposal.”

Feedback to the new game has been lukewarm at best with fans still clamouring for a season-long alternative to the CFL’s new game.

One of the primary criticisms of the game is its close resemblance to DraftKings’ CFL product, a new game that launched last year. The league’s new game omits the kicker position (a spot that is not featured in DraftKings’ game) and includes a new salary cap system that bears a strong resemblance to the one utilized by DraftKings.

DraftKings is a gambling website, meaning players must be prepared to wager money in order to play. New accounts must be attached to a credit card number, which is a deterrent for prospective players who don’t want to wager real dollars on fantasy football.

In fairness to the CFL, this draws a key distinction between DraftKings’ product and the league’s new game — one has a financial component, while the other is only for fun.

The league defends its new product, saying the new game aims to grow interest in CFL fantasy football.

“In a perfect world at some point we will have many many options for fantasy for fans – whether produced by CFL, TSN, other media organizations etc – but growth is the priority right now and this format is the best for that objective.”

Even so, the season-long CFL fantasy market — a market the league originally intended to target this off-season — is still being overlooked by an organization that is still trying to break into what is already a huge market south of the border. Until then, the league will leaving fantasy football players — and, evidently, its experts — out to dry.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.