The CFL is doing its best to embrace the NFL exodus. But will the fans?

The CFL and its fans have always had an uneasy, conflicted attitude to the NFL poaching its premier talent.

The NFL accomplishments of players like Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Cam Wake – all of whom rose to prominence in the CFL – are a source of pride, an oft-cited example of the legitimacy of the Canadian game. But the league and its fans have traditionally rejected the notion of the CFL as a feeder league for the big brother next door, a junior circuit to be pillaged at will.

For years, the CFL’s policies were structured to make that transition difficult: the minimum two-year entry-level contract and, more recently, the elimination of the NFL workout window were clearly designed to keep talented players on this side of the border for as long as possible. The CFL, like any entertainment enterprise these days, is built largely on star power and letting that star power walk away at will was as seen counter-productive.

This season, however, all that’s changed – at least as far as the league’s concerned.

After years of attempting to limit and downplay the annual U.S. exodus, the CFL has done an about-face and is now trumpeting the departures of some of its biggest names as some kind of success story. The league’s social media account has kept a faithful record of each big signing – Duke Williams, Alex Singleton, Diontae Spencer and so on– while commissioner Randy Ambrosie was recently quoted as saying the spate of moves is “evidence of how fundamentally close the talent level in our league is to the talent level in the NFL.

“That’s been a long and important story as it relates to our football. Our guys are world-class athletes and I’m always happy for them when they get a chance to take a shot at the NFL.”

The reasoning behind the league’s decision to turn their goodbye frown upside down isn’t hard to figure. With the rise of the Alliance of American Football and, to a much lesser extent, the impending launch of the XFL, the CFL needs to position itself as a viable pathway for American players to make it to the NFL.

Concern over the ability of Canadian teams to compete with the AAF in the recruitment of talent was the central reason why the league reinstated the NFL-option window this winter – a concession made mid-season with collective bargaining on the horizon. The CFLPA got themselves a little win without having to give up – or even do – anything.

While the CFL is willing to smile and wave as a cavalcade of stars takes their leave, it remains to be seen if the fans are so magnanimous. While many of the hardcore faithful understand the fiscal realities of the two leagues and want what’s best for their favourite players on a personal level, there will certainly be a segment of the fanbase who chafe at each departure and, particularly, at the CFL’s new role as cheerleader.

Meanwhile, there are attempts to put a positive spin on the situation (like this piece) asserting that the departure of dominant players will open up opportunities for new stars to emerge. They certainly better hope so, given the quality of players they’ve lost already and are expected to lose shortly. And they’ll just have to hope that fans share their level optimism.

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