CFL Week sequel will face comparisons to Regina original

Like all sequels, the second CFL Week faces a challenge the inaugural one didn’t: heightened expectations.

Last year’s decision to mash together several off-season events including the combine and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame induction announcement while providing an unprecedented amount of off-season player access – it helps that broadcaster TSN needs are increasingly fancy, fire-breathing promo videos – paid off handsomely. Held in Regina, Saskatchewan to take advantage of one of the CFL’s largest and most rabid fan bases made perfect sense and Rider Nation embraced it with their usual full-throated, green-tinged enthusiasm.

The reviews were – and this is tough in the era of click-bait and social media snark – almost universally positive. Coming off a rocky 2016 Grey Cup in Toronto, CFL Week was a big and much-needed win for the league.

For 2018, the CFL has opted to move the event to Winnipeg, another strong market for the league but not one without its challenges. And while the sophomore version of CFL Week, which got underway in earnest on Wednesday, features the same pillars as the Regina-based version – Hall of Fame, combine, fan events – the league has added some elements which provide a tantalizing preview as to where it could be headed in the future.

The inclusion of two team-based parties on Friday – a Riderville and a Bomber-themed event – signal the beginning of the Grey Cup-ification of CFL Week, an attempt to recreate what makes the week leading up to the league’s championship game so successful. Team parties – including Tiger Town and the Spirit of Edmonton – form the backbone of any Grey Cup experience as fans come together from across the country (and sometimes much further) to drink a few beers, have a good time and talk some football. It’s really hard not to have a good time at the Grey Cup.

There’s a shocking number of people who come to Grey Cup year after year after year – it’s like a SnapChat streak for middle-aged Canadian football fans – and if they decide that CFL Week is worth checking out, then that’s a game-changer: if just a portion of the national fan base decide to treat it as another destination event, then the ceiling for its success gets exponentially higher

And Winnipeg provides a good first test.

The Grey Cup held in this city in 2015 was considered to be a success, though it did not receive the universal praise heaped upon Ottawa after last November’s extravaganza. The game was a late sell-out – a Bomber team that didn’t make the playoffs didn’t help – and the events were spread over a large geographic area. Still, they did a fine job.

But whether the Bombers’ on-field resurgence and CFL Week’s undeniable momentum will be enough to take this week to the next level remains to be seen. Unlike Regina, where the Riders are clearly the No. 1 game in town, the Bombers share ink, airtime and fan interest with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets – a sure-fire playoff team. The Jets plays Friday and Sunday at a rink just a few blocks from where most of the football events are being held.

Which isn’t to say that this is a make-or-break year for CFL Week. While the Grey Cup has a 106-year history, this is Year Two for the off-season experiment. A setback may force a re-think surrounding certain elements – and there’s no indication that’s about to happen – but the concept may still be a good one. If all else fails, they can always go back to Regina.

If it’s another rousing success, then teams from across the country will be clamouring for a turn. A CFL Week in Hamilton, where they haven’t hosted a Grey Cup since 1996, makes sense. So does Montreal, in need of an injection of CFL enthusiasm. How about Halifax, where the league is trying to launch a tenth franchise?

CFL Week will never be the Grey Cup but if the league can capture just a little bit of the magic that makes it work, then the CFL – and it’s fans – will be all the better for it. The next few days in Winnipeg don’t need to be a blockbuster, just one of those films that leaves you wanting more.