Starting the CFL season earlier is easier said than done

If some, including Eskimos president Len Rhodes, had their way we wouldn’t be looking at the start of the CFL season this week, we would already be rolling into Week 3.

That is because over the last few years we have seen a growing number of people advocate for starting the CFL season earlier than the current start date that occurs near the end of June. The most common idea thrown out is that the season should start two weeks earlier than it does right now.

The reasons why vary, but the ones most commonly cited are that ending the season in late November hurts the product both on the field — the level of play isn’t as good when the season turns from summer to fall — and off — fans are less likely to trek to the stadium when the temperature drops.

How anyone feels about the level of play is up to the individual, so that cannot be measured in any meaningful way. Last year’s Grey Cup was considered an instant classic and that game was played in late November off the frigid coast of Lake Ontario. So maybe the weather doesn’t kill the play on the field as much as people would like to think.

But the lack of attendance argument is something that can be looked at and doesn’t really hold up. Lots of things dictate a fan’s interest in attending a game, such as a team’s record and whether they are in playoff contention or not. Those factors happen to coincide with the sometimes miserable weather of late fall in Canada. So it should interest many that of the eight teams with outdoor stadiums, six — Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal — attracted more fans than their season average more frequently from Labour Day onward than they did prior to Labour Day. In fact, both Hamilton and Montreal exceeded their season average in attendance in their final three home games (including playoffs) while doing so just once (Montreal) and twice (Hamilton) prior to Labour Day. So perhaps worse weather doesn’t impact attendance as much as people think.

Of the two teams, Saskatchewan and Ottawa, that did not exceed their averages more times in the second half of the season than in the first other factors outside of weather played a role. For Saskatchewan, another lost season that saw them eliminated from playoff contention well before the season came to a close was probably a larger factor than weather for their dip in attendance (even though their attendance was still very good). If the Riders would have been fighting for a playoff spot late in the season, the crowds would have been larger.

As for Ottawa, they had remarkable consistency in their attendance. A season high of 25,088 and a season low of 24,210 was the closest differential between high and low of any team in the league. So despite still great attendance numbers late in the season, they were slightly lower than during the earlier parts of the year. Also, despite winning the Grey Cup, Ottawa was a losing team, winning just eight of their 18 games last year. They also were bad at home, winning just twice in nine tries at TD Place. Being a losing team, even one that does win the division, will make fans think twice about attending games.

So there is a bit of a fallacy when it comes to some of the arguments laid out as to why the league should start the season sooner, but if that is not enough of an incentive to leave the things the way they are, there is one sizeable issue that comes with bumping up the start of the season: the draft would need to be sooner and it can’t be.

It is only fair to assume that if the season is moved up two weeks, the start of training camp would also be moved up two weeks. In the case of 2017, that means instead of the season beginning on June 22 it would start on June 8 and camp would have to start on May 14 instead of May 28. The 2017 CFL Draft was held on May 7, three weeks before the start of camp. That would have put this year’s draft on April 16.

The big problem with having the CFL draft in mid-April is the NFL Draft is in late April, and with the increased interest in Canadian talent amongst NFL teams, the CFL Draft has to be held after the NFL Draft.

Let’s once again use this year as an example. Four of the top prospects in this year’s CFL Draft were either drafted (Justin Senior) or signed as undrafted free agents (Geoff Grey, Anthony Auclair, Eli Ankou) by NFL teams. Due to their NFL opportunities, those players all fell in the CFL Draft. Senior went in the fifth round, Grey in the first (though he probably would have been the first overall pick, not the eighth, had he not been signed by the Green Bay Packers), Auclair in the fourth and Ankou in the third. These players were all first-round CFL talents, and without the knowledge that they would be getting NFL opportunities, they likely all go within the first nine picks of the CFL Draft. Imagine if your team took Ankou second overall just to see him sign a contract with an NFL team. There would be justifiable outrage. Teams do take chances on NFL-bound players, but taking Justin Senior in the fifth round as opposed to fifth overall softens the blow if he never comes north. CFL teams need the knowledge that comes with holding their draft after the NFL one. Moving up the season would take that knowledge away.

Taking everything into account — solid attendance numbers and with the negative impact it would have on each year’s draft — the case to start the season earlier doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. While the sound bites make it seem like a good idea, that facts of the matter are that more harm would be done than good, so things should really just stay the way they are.

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