News of negotiations between the XFL and CFL has set the online punditry into a frothy chatter about the future loss of a piece of Canadiana and the impending demise of three-down football.
I always find the level of fragility in CFL circles when it comes to the future of our league bewildering. Every community-run team shows a profit, and the owners of the private teams include several people with nine or ten-figure net valuations.
The days of the Larry Ryckmans and the Lonnie Gliebermans are over, yet we cling to the idea that at any moment we could hear that the league as a whole has collapsed.
I’m not of that persuasion, so here is a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to collaborating between leagues.
1. DO have player movement between leagues
This is almost certain in any type of collaboration. Players currently under contract with either league should be able to sign a contract with the other league without affecting their status.
This allows much more opportunity for players of both leagues to showcase themselves to the NFL year round, but also allows for the leagues to reduce their individual salary structure under the premise that players could play year-round if they choose to.
At the same time, this could also allow marquee players to negotiate higher deals with exclusivity clauses should they choose to only play for a single team.
The largest hurdle in this strategy will be insurance for players who are injured in one league and the impact that has on their team in the other league. While there are several ways around this — including, you know, insurance — there may also be some sort of structure negotiated regarding compensation as well.
Allowing players to play on both sides of the border year-round combines viewership as fans will follow their favourite players in the other league to become fans of their spring team.
Anyone who doubts that should see how many new Eagles fans have popped up in Calgary because of Alex Singleton.
2. DON’T officially merge the two leagues
This needs to be a “friends with benefits” merger and not a marriage. The CFL has 107 years of Grey Cup history to draw on while the XFL is tarnished toy that has been handed down because the original owners didn’t want it anymore. Anything that ties financial failures between the leagues would be a complete disaster given the history of spring football in the U.S.
While there can be sharing of the benefits of this partnership, either needs to have the right to not save the other beyond skewing the sharing of those benefits.
Much like a couple that maintains their own bank account and each puts their share into the joint account, the CFL must be wary of the past and learn from it.
3. DO focus on combined TV contracts
Having both networks negotiating together offers mutual benefits when negotiating TV contracts. The ability to negotiate year-round football for networks relatively cheaply might find appeal in a crowded landscape.
The last XFL deal saw no rights money go to the league from ESPN and FOX, but it did guarantee those leagues would be on television every week. Exposure counts in an increasingly online world and in the past some new enterprises had to pay the networks for that exposure.
4. DON’T expand into either’s respective countries
As the XFL is owned by a single entity that funds all teams. Territory isn’t really an issue as all fan dollars and revenues flow into one big pot.
The CFL having independent ownership are fiercely protective of their respective spaces. Putting an XFL team in a CFL city dilutes the football dollars available to either team.
Putting a CFL team into American markets is a non-starter of course because of the ratio (more on that in a moment). One of the many reasons the American experiment failed involved the idea that American teams weren’t subject to the ratio rules because of US labour laws.
When you have teams in a league playing by separate rules, that could provide them a competitive advantage which would be untenable in today’s sporting landscape.
5. DO play on Friday nights…
…or at the very least avoid Sundays. There is far less competition in the weekly sporting landscape on Friday nights than there is on Sundays. Sundays are when once-weekly events happen.
Appealing to the party atmosphere both on TV and in-stadium on Friday nights will draw a younger demographic. The Friday night double header is one of the best things about the CFL right now, and the XFL should adopt the same strategy.
6. DON’T change the ratio in the CFL
The ratio is another part of what Canadians love about the CFL. The talent level of Canadians is growing every year and should be celebrated. However, those players often wouldn’t get the opportunity to shine in the CFL without the ratio.
There are still too many coaches who come up to the league with disdain for Canadian players as a preset. The Canadian game needs to have a Canadian connection and the elimination of the ratio with have extremely adverse effects on grassroots football.
7. DO talk about players’ accomplishments in other leagues
A ton of sports with competing products do this to their detriment. There is every reason to talk up what a player did in another league and show highlights accordingly because it makes the fans excited to have them on their team.
With the player movement, make those highlight packages available for broadcast and use them often to celebrate the players. Fans want to connect with players and those things can deepen the bond very quickly.
8. DON’T change the CFL to four downs or the XFL to three
What makes the CFL so beloved among its adherents and converts is that it’s unique. It isn’t the “NFL Lite.”
The CFL has spent the last few years preaching CFL 2.0 and why our brand of football can be embraced worldwide and find it’s place in the football landscape globally. Changing to four downs eliminates that immediately and sunders all the goodwill that the absolute diehards hold dear. It would change the game at a fundamental level that it wouldn’t recover from.
At the same time, having the XFL adopt three-down ball will kill it in its cradle for most American fans who would reject it as too gimmicky to watch. There’s also an infrastructure problem as most XFL stadiums wouldn’t be able to accommodate a CFL field.
9. DO allow for season ticket holders to get discounts for tickets in the other league.
Sports tourism is a big deal. Telling your season ticket holders in either league that they could get cheaper discounted or even free tickets if they went to a game in the other league likely wouldn’t be used all that often, but it sure would make people feel like they were getting value.
Getting butts in seats is never a bad thing and anyone that has had the pleasure of chatting with the Baltimore Stallion fans that make the trek for Grey Cup every year, you will know that those kind of passions can be ignited and last for decades.
10. DO have some sort of fun made-for-TV event
Fans in football often have a harder time connecting with their favourite players because they are rarely seen on TV without a helmet.
Put together some sort of special you can run in between seasons where the players from both leagues come in and have some sort of skills competition. It doesn’t even have to be football related — just something that puts the players and personalities on display for the entertainment of the fans.
British television is littered with game shows, quiz shows, and other friendly competition type shows where the same 30-40 comedians make the rounds doing stupid, lighthearted things that keep them in the public eye.
We should be treating our athletes the same way. It doesn’t always have to be serious.
Imagine Charleston Hughes, Derek Dennis, Mike Reilly and others on a show like Taskmaster and you will catch my meaning.
This does not need to be a death sentence for the CFL as all those who typically predict it are suggesting. It could be great exposure for our league, and move the CFL forward towards a more complete product.