CFL fans aren’t resistant to change, they are proud of their three-down identity

Photo courtesy: CFL

Here we are again, for what seems like the hundredth time in the last few years. A fundamental aspect of the CFL game is reportedly under threat, a fan base is panicked, and the commissioner refuses to address it in any manner that doesn’t sound like a sphinx luring you to your death.

Caring deeply about this league so often comes with an emotional toll as it bounces from one crisis — real or contrived — to another, but the recent report that the CFL is seriously considering a change to four down football strikes a particularly powerful blow to many.

The move, allegedly being championed by the league’s new commercial equity partner Genius Sports, has been denied by the company and brushed aside by Randy Ambrosie, but fans aren’t stupid. Until the commissioner offers a promise that three-down football will be maintained, we can all smell the familiar tinge of smoke that accompanied this controversy like last time when the XFL was involved.

Frankly, I have neither the time nor the patience to rehash why a shift to four downs is a terrible idea, both for what it might do to game play and for the lack of desired effect it would have on fan interest. Nobody needs another four-down league, let’s leave it at that.

Instead, I wish to come to the defence of angry CFL fans, who for more than three years have been bombarded by a particularly toxic criticism. No matter the issue — be it protection of the ratio, amalgamation with the XFL, or three-downs — justified outrage has been met by accusations that the CFL community is simply resistant to change.

You can ignore such venom from internet trolls and brush it off when it comes from the media, but it’s an idea that some in CFL leadership have parroted as well. On Thursday, Ambrosie took time aside from a radio hit in which he could have outright denied the four-down rumours in order to remind us all that the CFL’s greatest symbol, the Grey Cup, is a rugby trophy. See, don’t you all feel like idiots for resisting change?

Setting aside the fact that three downs actually pre-dates the Grey Cup, there is some truth to Ambrosie’s statement. Sports have always changed with time and sometimes hotly debated rule changes — like the forward pass, for instance — can become beloved. However, the implication that CFL fans are uniquely resistant to such changes is a slap in the face to those of us who care.

CFL rules change every year with nary a peep from the fanbase. The league is markedly different now than it was even 20 years ago and there has been no existential crisis. In fact, fans seem to suggest their own possible ameliorations to the rulebook almost daily.

The issue at hand is not that CFL fans are against change, it’s that they are against the destruction of a fundamental piece of the league’s identity and rightfully so.

Think of it this way, if your significant other suggests that the way to fix the problems in your relationship is to pick up your dirty socks, be more considerate to their feelings and wash the dishes more often — cue riotous laughter from my girlfriend — that’s probably a call for change worth heeding. If they suggest the solution to all your problems is to lose 50 pounds or get plastic surgery, it’s probably time to find a new relationship.

Every sport has several fundamental features that make it what it is. Sometimes people can debate the relative importance of these features, but the reality is that for most CFL fans having three downs is one of those defining elements and for many it is the most essential.

That’s what happens when you spend more than a century building a brand upon a unique characteristic of your game. Canadian football has three downs and if the game doesn’t have three downs, it can’t be Canadian football. The bigger field dimensions, waggle, and special teams rules are other fundamental pillars of this identity, but three downs has long been the most universally recognizable. This website isn’t named the way it is for no reason.

Change is not inherently positive and the fact that fans don’t want the game they love to emerge unrecognizable after an unwanted facelift is not something that should be scoffed at. It means they care, despite this league placing every possible hurdle in their way to prevent them from investing that energy.

Ultimately, there is no compelling evidence that a rule change would attract the younger audience and American money that the CFL so desperately craves and there is no reality in which slapping your entire dedicated consumer base in the face is a prudent business decision.

After years of evasiveness and platitudes, it’s time for Ambrosie to finally put this particular controversy to bed in the most clear and direct way possible. If not, CFL fans will continue to demonstrate that they love change, so long as it’s in the commissioner’s office.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.