If you’ve been following the XFL rumours, and at this point they are still rumours — although it’s clear they’re doing more than just “talking about talking” — you’ve probably read the reaction from many hardcore CFL fans.
If you have, you’ve definitely noticed something that has plagued the CFL for years. In fact, it’s probably part of what’s led the league to a point where they even need to consider partnering with an American league that’s folded twice in less than two seasons of play. It’s something just as Canadian as winters, politeness and maple syrup.
It’s our inferiority complex.
For whatever reason, some Canadians have never forgiven the CFL for not being the NFL. For that crime, they don’t support it, don’t like it, don’t buy tickets to it, don’t watch it and take every available opportunity to bash it. This XFL news demonstrates this point yet again, as many have taken to social media to say the league is dying and needs to throw out everything its fans hold dear.
Reading those types of comments, I can’t help but wonder why the CFL is held to a different standard than other pro leagues in North America. Everyone knows the MLS or CPL isn’t the Champion’s League and people seem to be okay with that. Yet because the CFL isn’t the NFL, it’s suddenly terrible?
Newsflash: there’s no league on earth like the NFL — it’s a behemoth in the sports world and nothing will ever compare.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to our style of football. In fact, it’s the most exciting brand in the world. Don’t take my word for it, either — Commissioner Randy Ambrosie himself was saying so when he launched his global initiative. Perhaps he no longer believes that?
The CFL might not be the most profitable or the biggest league, but it’s the most entertaining. Three downs means more passing and less running. It means stretching the field. Speaking of our wider field, having all that space means offensive minds can scheme into more mismatches. It means smaller guys who were overlooked because of their stature can remind a nation that they are still incredibly talented football players (through their speed, catching and tackling.
Our rules mean special teams matter. Kickoffs aren’t merely boring touchbacks. Almost every punt is returned. Sometimes teams even punt the ball repeatedly back to one another. It’s outstanding.
Nowhere else in the world plays Canada’s brand of football, and that’s okay. The league itself has spent decades running highly successful marketing campaigns on the quirkiness of our game. If we eliminate the Canadian aspects of our game, are we really saving it, or are we actually the hand holding the knife?
Clearly, the league’s existing financial issues have been exacerbated by COVID, but is it actually teetering on the brink of collapse? Let’s look back to the 2019 season when 1,856,263 tickets were sold across the league, which averaged 22,916 fans per game. There’s plenty of room for improvement — especially in cities like Toronto and Vancouver — but let’s not pretend like nobody is going to games.
There’s a long-term TV contract with TSN in place until 2025 and in 2019, viewing numbers were up with over nine million people tuning in for at least some part of Winnipeg’s blowout Grey Cup win. The money each team receives from the broadcast deal alone could cover most of the salary cap.
There’s new owners in Montreal and multiple people interested in buying the B.C. Lions. There were discussions of east coast expansion and legitimate talks of building a home for the Schooners in Halifax with municipal support until the pandemic interrupted. With all of that said, does that sound like a dying league?
None of the above is to say that CFL owners aren’t losing money or that they run a highly efficient ship, because they are and they don’t. But what I’m trying to illustrate is that although the league has serious off-field issues to address, it shouldn’t take hollowing out the core of our game to fix it.
Jim Mullin, the President of Football Canada, is entirely correct when he states that whatever comes from the CFL’s discussions with the XFL will reverberate throughout the country. As such, the league needs to look beyond itself. Changing fundamental aspects of our game will trickle down to the U Sports and grassroots levels.
At the end of the day, the Canadian game is wildly entertaining, has fans and supporters across the country and over 100 years of rich history. That history is full of change, so we shouldn’t dismiss new things out of hand.
But let’s stop pretending the three-down game is awful or that its unique quirks carry inherent flaws. They don’t. The goal should always be improvement but what our league needs is tweaks, not wholesale changes. And certainly not an abandoning of the things that make our game ours.
Hopefully the commissioner keeps that in mind as he talks about talking.