Playing four-down football would not increase Canadian interest in the CFL

Photo courtesy: CFL

More young Canadians follow the NFL than the CFL, which is a troubling statistic for the league north of the border. It’s a demographic issue that has to be addressed to ensure the CFL is still around twenty to thirty years from now.

Some have suggested that moving from three-down football to four-down football could fix this problem.

Personally, I think that’s laughable. I don’t believe young Canadians prefer the NFL because it has four downs — they prefer it because it’s the NFL.

The NFL has megastars like Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Donald, and Lamar Jackson. Though the talent differential between an average CFL player and an average NFL player is thin, there’s no denying that the NFL’s elite are by far the best players in the world.

People idolize stars. It’s only natural.

Video games play a huge role in driving the stardom of these players as well. Madden is always one of the top-selling games of the year and its audience is overwhelmingly young and male. Trucking opponents as Derrick Henry or making leaping catches as DeAndre Hopkins is a blast.

Then there’s the NFL’s dominance of the news cycle. Coverage of the league is ubiquitous. It doesn’t matter if it’s the regular season, playoffs, combine, draft or free agency — the NFL always demands the attention of fans, fantasy players, and bettors. The buzz never stops.

Young Canadian fans aren’t interested in four-down football. They’re interested in the NFL, which is a critical distinction.

A four-down CFL would not have Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson. It would not dominate the media landscape, nor would it have an iconic, best-selling video game.

If young Canadians craved four-down football, more of them would be watching the NCAA. It’s an entertaining product — I watched a ton of it this past fall in the absence of the CFL — and it’s not hard to find on television.

Per source, the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship between Ohio State and Alabama drew 417,000 viewers in Canada. For comparison, the game drew 447,000 viewers in 2015 and 379,000 in 2016. Those numbers are pretty flat.

Let’s take a look at the Google Trends for “NFL,” “CFL,” and “NCAA Football” in Canada over the past five years.

Google Trends

The NFL has grown tremendously in our country over the past half-decade with searches up close to 50 percent since 2016. That matches the data suggesting more Canadians are watching the NFL than ever before.

Google Trends

Though CFL searches were low in 2020 due to the lack of a season, the league experienced significant growth from 2016 to 2019. That’s a positive trend and proof that overall interest of the league is increasing, albeit among older people.

Google Trends

Canadian interest in NCAA football grew modestly from 2016 to 2019. Many conferences sat out the 2020 season or played only partial schedules, which is why searches dipped but didn’t flat-line this past year.

Why aren’t more Canadians watching college football? After all, it’s four downs — isn’t that what they want?

The NCAA lacks the star power of the NFL — at least in Canada — and it’s not prominent in the news cycle, nor does it have a video game.

In other words, the NCAA has the same problems that the CFL would continue to face even if it played four-down football.

We need to stop pretending that young Canadians have turned away from the CFL because it plays three-down football. That’s not the problem.

The NFL is a juggernaut. It can’t be stopped.

The CFL will never be a better four-down league than the NFL, nor should it try to be.

Remaining unique is the only way the CFL will maintain its current fan base. Regardless of whether or not it merges with the XFL, doubling down on its quirks — making the game even more different — could help grow it.

Becoming a cheap imitation of the NFL would only result in more fans switching to the real thing. If the CFL’s leadership is smart, they’ll avoid playing four-down football at all costs.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.