For 16 years, Chris Cuthbert was the voice that soothed CFL fans.
The league’s announcement on Wednesday that it is seeking opportunities for collaboration and innovation with the XFL has that voice wracked with worry.
“I’m still concerned that this is potentially a deal with the devil,” Cuthbert told Scott Rintoul on Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver.
“My concern level is extremely high, but I guess if you’re asking me 48 hours later, I am open to hearing what the benefits might be.”
The veteran play-by-play man who left TSN in 2020 in order to continue calling NHL games remains a passionate fan of the three-down game and while he’s trying to remain open-minded, Cuthbert sees some of the speculation surrounding a merger of the two leagues as almost sacrilegious.
“There’s some elements that are non-negotiable and that’s obvious from a Canadian football standpoint. The most important word in the Canadian Football League is Canadian. To me, it’s essential. It’s three downs,” he emphasized.
“I guess a hybrid size field that’s bigger than an NFL field and slightly different than a CFL field is somewhat palatable, but for the most part, I think the uniqueness of the game is what’s kept it alive. For many of us, it’s why we love it so much.”
Also potentially on the chopping block is the Canadian ratio, a particular hot button for Cuthbert’s long-time broadcast partner Glen Suitor. Cuthbert has seen some suggestion that it would be maintained in some form for a merged league but doesn’t believe it’s possible.
“I could see a ratio of X number of Canadians on the Canadian teams and international players on an XFL team, but from what I understand the labour laws in the States will not allow any ratio of any kind,” Cuthbert said.
The ratio wasn’t applied to US teams during the league’s ill-fated American expansion in the 1990s and while some have noted that the financial boost from new franchises helped stabilized the CFL, Cuthbert insists that road is one best left firmly in the past.
“We could spend an hour with all the horror stories of that experiment,” he said.
The CFL has been awarding the Grey Cup for over 100 years. Meanwhile, the original XFL lasted one full season in 2001 and the revival in 2020 played just five weeks before folding due to the pandemic.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his associate purchased the bankrupt league for just $15 million and while Cuthbert isn’t opposed to the concept of a post-season bowl game or all-star showcase between the two leagues, he questions whether the league has truly explored all options before rolling over to American star power.
“The government has had a justice committee reviewing a bill that would allow sports betting and the CFL elected not to accept the invitation to be there in committee. Now I’m told that they are filing off their views on it, I thought that was a missed opportunity,” Cuthbert said.
“We’ve been sitting around for a year and have we done anything to talk about revenue sharing? I still think there are things to be done or that could have been done exclusive to joining a league that’s already folded twice.”
While some have championed a move to four-down American rules as a fix-all cure for the CFL’s attendance woes in major markets, Cuthbert dismisses that view entirely.
“The National Football League is the powerhouse of all sports properties. There’s no point in trying to be an NFL lite,” he explained. “Be unique, be different, be the game that Canadians have loved.”
While that is a view shared by many fans, the league’s wealthy owners may prefer another strategy to recoup their pandemic losses. As a fan of the game, Cuthbert is very worried.
“It’s already clear the CFL that we knew is probably in real jeopardy and I’m just hoping we can preserve some of the basic tenets that made the CFL special.”