Opinion: lack of CFL Week makes CFL weak

Photo courtesy: Canadian Football Hall of Fame

It appears as though CFL Week is officially dead.

Fans across the country have been waiting for four years to learn whether or not the short-lived but popular off-season event would return following the COVID-19 pandemic.

CFL Week was essentially a mini-Grey Cup that took place in March, a time when the league’s news cycle reaches its annual low. It garnered a title sponsor and featured the national combine, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame announcement gala, and a fan festival that included meet and greets, trivia contests, parties, and family activities.

The event also provided an opportunity for the media to speak with many of the league’s biggest stars at a time when they weren’t burdened with the physical and mental strain of the season. It seemed like a win-win for all parties involved.

The inaugural CFL Week took place in Regina in 2017 before moving to Winnipeg the following year and both events were considered massive successes. There were reports that Ottawa was going to host CFL Week in 2019, though it didn’t take place due to the upcoming expiration of the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

The CFL did not bring the event back for March 2020, though it likely would have been cancelled anyway due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was speculation that the event could return now that pandemic concerns have largely subsided, though the league’s commissioner shot that down on Friday.

“CFL Week was a great success here (in Regina), it was a great success in Winnipeg, but I think our future is by looking forward and advancing in some way some of these technology solutions to make sure we can give fans content all the time. We have to connect our fans to the stories,” said Randy Ambrosie.

It’s worth noting that Christina Litz (pictured), the executive widely credited with creating CFL Week, is no longer working for the league. She now serves as the chief brand and commercial officer of the Winnipeg Jets. The first CFL Week also preceded Ambrosie’s tenure as commissioner as its conception fell under the leadership of Jeffrey Orridge.

The league recently announced that the next national combine would take place over a five-day period in Edmonton in March 2023. The event has historically taken place in the winterized bubble at Varsity Centre at the University of Toronto, which provides poor sight lines for the viewing audience. A source recently indicated that the league is hoping to move the event around each year and potentially have cities bid for the right to host it.

Ambrosie talked about how critical it is for the league to have “good, old-fashioned community contact,” so it’s possible that alternatives to CFL Week could be created in the future. He also stressed the importance of focusing on digital content to connect with fans, referencing Formula 1: Drive to Survive, a Netflix docudrama that has generated interest in international racing.

“We need multiple touch points in all of our CFL cities all the time through the off-season and all the time during the season. I don’t believe the answer is to look backwards for how we generate those touch points. I think the opportunity is to look forward to think about how we create more events,” said the commissioner.

“How do we create more content? How do we look at shows like the QEW series and others that are now in production to give fans an opportunity to hear the amazing stories of our players and make those strong personal connections with them?”

It seems wise for the CFL to focus on storytelling and video content — Hard Knocks has been a massive success for the NFL for two decades now — but it seems unnecessary to conflate the two issues. Why can’t they host a major off-season event like CFL Week and create content at the same time? They aren’t mutually exclusive endeavours. The league should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time.

Though fans will have to wait patiently to learn more about what off-season events could be created in future years, now is the time to mourn a once-marquee event and its lasting legacy.

CFL Week, we hardly knew ye.

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