Eight ways CFL fans feel leadership is failing them

Photo courtesy: Minas Panagiotakis/CFL.ca

Social media can skew negative. The abundance of trolls can be unbearable. But it doesn’t mean that fan opinions don’t matter.

Recently, I asked CFL fans on Twitter and Reddit for feedback on what league leadership isn’t doing right. After wading through the requisite nonsense, here are the common threads of their displeasure.

Grassroots

The policy of the league has always been to leave the grassroots promotion and community building to the teams. The result of that negligence has been the incredible growth and presence of the NFL north of the border.

Instead of focusing on the Canadian game, Football Canada has a significant agreement with the NFL in place and they work closely together.

According to a source, Football Canada has approached the CFL many times over the years to do more but it’s fallen on deaf ears. The commissioner is more focused on places like Mexico than on growing the game here at home. If the country’s youth grow up on the American game, why would they choose to follow the CFL as they get older?

Technology 

The league’s struggles transitioning to a new statistics system have many in the community outraged, but their complaints go beyond just the current absence of reliable data.

Unless you type C-F-L dot C-A in your browser, you can sometimes wait a while for a simple box score. Even partner TSN sometimes doesn’t have live stats available on its app or website. The Score app, a staple for many sports fans in North America, rarely has cumulative game stats live. This is a league that wants to embrace the dollars and eyeballs generated from betting but has failed at creating the most essential tool for making that possible.

Other technological questions also loom. If cash-strapped startups can launch mobile apps, why can’t a century-old league figure out a way to do so? Several folks on Twitter brought up the CFL’s absence from the video gaming space as a major problem, calling for a partnership with EA Sports Madden games. Sure, it could be a tough sell to the gaming manufacturer, but that is how you make inroads with younger sports fans.

Talking about talking

The heart of the Canadian Football League game is the uniqueness of its rules. From the shape of the ball to the size of the field to the rouge, it’s a brand of football that is ours.

When Randy Ambrosie publicly began talking about talks with the XFL two years ago,  the suggestion that the CFL game would alter its very format or existence for a fledging league with no track record of success was defeatist. It was a betrayal to generations of fans who had invested so much into supporting and sticking by the league. Mostly, it was a sign of weakness and desperation.

That things with the XFL didn’t come to fruition is a relief, but many in Canada have never forgiven the commissioner for that implication.

Pandemic failures

A crisis is when you find out who your leaders are and the CFL got exposed during the COVID pandemic. Not only did Ambrosie fail to secure government support for a century-old cultural institution to salvage a cancelled season, but he was criticized for his lack of an in-depth presentation.

This was an alarming example of the league not forging strong relations with the various levels of government before the pandemic. If you don’t have unlimited amounts of funds, it behooves you to always be able to rely on support from the government. The CFL took that for granted and failed to tap into public funds, even when other private businesses did.

Broadcasts

While other leagues continue to partner with broadcasters to innovate during games, a regular CFL telecast on TSN hasn’t changed this century. You have the panel in the studio, the one sideline reporter and the booth broadcast team.

Can we create a more dynamic studio and not have to watch the same guys sitting at a big desk? How does this attract the younger fan at all? For all of the gimmicks that the XFL and other leagues have brought, at least they’re trying things. To CFL viewers, it feels like the league is simply grateful that TSN and RDS are even showing the games, and they aren’t putting any pressure on them to grow or innovate the product.

Even the league’s new U.S. broadcast agreement with CBS Sports Network is less than ideal. Firstly, the CBS Sports Network is not subject to TV ratings, likely because the network doesn’t want to highlight its lower household reach compared to other sports network partners. Of all the U.S. broadcast options, including various streaming services, it seems unimaginative to sign with a small network, rather than continue to try and grow the ESPN relationship or approach Amazon, DAZN or other platforms.

It’s also worth noting that parents are saying that there aren’t enough weekend day games. The league relents to its TV partners most of the time and lets games be broadcast at night. It would be nice to let young kids see more games live, and air more day games.

Coaching salary cap 

The fact that the league has chosen to persist with a cap on coaching salaries is ludicrous. This attempt to ensure that smaller budget teams can be on the same playing field as large market ones only encourages coaches to seek employment elsewhere, such as in the XFL, USFL, and NCAA.

Top-notch coaching brings top-notch creativity and execution. Without high-quality coaches, the product suffers. The commissioner and the owners are paying the price right now, as gameplay simply isn’t as innovative or explosive as it used to be.

The 10th team 

The league has flirted with a 10th team in the Atlantic region for a few years, but they’ve failed to make it happen. We can blame COVID all we want, but the truth is that this commissioner couldn’t get it done before the pandemic took form.

It’s fine and dandy to stage games out east, but without a team in either Halifax or Moncton, this isn’t a truly national league. The fan interest is there, but Ambrosie doesn’t seem to have the business acumen to attract a large Canadian company to finance it. We’re not talking a 30,000-seat stadium and $100 million operating costs either.

Missed opportunity

Fans are still incredulous that the CFL couldn’t figure out a way to broadcast its Combine this spring, not even on Facebook or Instagram live. One source told me that this year’s event was changed to better accommodate football ops, making it more chaotic to cover from a broadcast perspective.

If this is the real reason why the league decided not to showcase its future athletes, it’s a major indictment of their leadership. There are always solutions to problems. The league could have easily put together daily highlights and long-form videos from the Combine to get people excited about the new players and keep themselves in the minds of fans during the offseason.

Bottom line

There were a myriad of other issues and suggestions from fans about how to improve the CFL. But at the end of the day, the desire for the league to do better has to come collectively from the nine owners. Without any pressure from above, this commissioner is free to keep the seat warm and not innovate or grow the game in any significant way.

So, how do we make that happen? How do we get through to the owners and tell them that they are not best served by the current leadership? That’s the million-dollar question.

Matthew Ross has covered sports in Montreal and beyond for over 20 years. He's contributed to outlets such as TSN, MLB.com, the Montreal Gazette, the National Post, and more. His Twitter account is @matthewevolves.