Opinion: XFL was never the answer to CFL’s problems

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Football Team

The Canadian Football League released a statement on Wednesday morning announcing that they have “jointly decided to not pursue any formal arrangements” with the XFL, ending talks that were made public in March.

The XFL was purchased in October 2020 by Dany Garcia, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and private investment firm RedBird Capital. Despite its flashy ownership group, it’s clear that a partnership with the twice-failed spring league was never going to be the answer to the CFL’s problems.

There is little to no appetite in the United States for spring football. That has always been the case and is likely to remain the case even when the XFL relaunches in 2023.

With the XFL no longer serving as an inane distraction, the CFL now has an opportunity to legitimately work towards correcting its shortcomings.

Let’s start with this: there is no question that the league needs to update its business model. The league has to become less reliant on gate revenue, engage a new generation of fans, take full advantage of legalized single-game sports betting, and expand to new markets. These are lofty goals that will take time and strong leadership to achieve.

I think it’s also worth noting that, while there’s no denying improvements are needed, I’ve yet to find evidence that the CFL is in existential peril.

Attendance has fallen slightly in recent years, but still remains relatively strong. The average CFL fan is getting older, but that’s true of almost every major sports league in the world. The Grey Cup still remains one of Canada’s top telecasts each year and the league remains woven into the cultural fabric of our country.

Is that a recipe for exponential future growth? No, but it’s enough to maintain the status quo.

I was also unable to find evidence that the XFL was the answer to any of the CFL’s shortcomings.

The NFL has grown in popularity in Canada, but there’s no proof to suggest that Canadians prefer four-down football. The CFL’s private owners also have more than enough capital to invoke major change without RedBird — all they have to do is show a willingness to invest in their own product.

The CFL’s business model isn’t broken. It never was. It just needs to be improved.

The league lost $60-80 million amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the losses should continue in 2021 due to a shortened season with limited attendance. This is obviously a big problem, though not one the league shouldn’t be able to endure.

The CFL’s three community-owned teams lost a combined $21.6 million in 2020 and did so without tapping into special resources. The Edmonton Elks did not touch their $13 million heritage trust fund to navigate the pandemic, nor did the Saskatchewan Roughriders need to dip into their $7.8 million stabilization fund.

We have no financial data for the league’s six privately-owned teams because they do not publicly disclose any financial information, but they are each owned by extraordinarily wealthy individuals or corporations. Provided they remain committed to the long-term success of their teams, private owners should be willing to put up with the same short-term losses most businesses have had to endure amid the pandemic.

If the CFL’s future was reliant on the XFL, a partnership would have been reached. It wasn’t.

If the CFL didn’t believe it could be sustainable post-pandemic, it would have folded by now. It hasn’t.

The CFL is set to hit the field next month for the first time in almost two full years. Fans will flock back to stadiums, televisions, and laptops to enjoy the league they love, while its leadership will hopefully work to secure a brighter, more secure future for our country’s most treasured league.

The pandemic has provided the CFL with an opportunity to reevaluate everything — its strengths, weaknesses, past, present, and future. What that future looks like remains hazy, but one thing is for sure: it was never going to include the XFL.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.