While I watched the return of the MLS, NBA and NHL, along with the determination of the NFL to play a full season come September, my hopes for seeing some sort of CFL season were dwindling. Then, to really no one’s surprise, the season was cancelled, due in part to the league being turned down for a 30 million dollar interest free loan. Disappointed, yes, but this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, for all indications are the CFL now has an opportunity to fix a lot of things that have been holding it back for far too long.
I have been a CFL fan since I was 15, when I first started watching football. I became a die hard Toronto Argonaut fan, where I became convinced the term ‘die hard’ applied exclusively to Argo fans. The 1971 team, which made it to the Grey Cup for the first time in 19 years, only to lose after the infamous fumble by running back Leon McQuay on the soaking wet astroturf of Empire Field in Vancouver. They were the first team that broke my heart ..certainly not the last, either. Nonetheless, my parents bought me seasons tickets one Christmas and I remained a dedicated fan (and back in those days, they had a 30,000 person season ticket base!). Since moving away from the Toronto area, I have supported the CFL and teams in the places I’ve lived, such as Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and, for most of my time here in Vancouver, I have been a season ticket holder for the BC Lions. I’ve had the opportunity to experience the game from the stands, the sidelines and the practice field. I’ve met many players, coaches, owners and many people associated with many teams. Many of them are some of the best people I’ve ever met. In their own way, they have devoted a life to a game which they love and have invested so much of themselves into it and, for far too long, very little reward in both a financial sense but also an acknowledgment from the casual sports fan as to just how good this game is.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to offer the league, and those who run it, a few suggestions to consider if you’re serious about using this lost season as a chance to reset..
- Promote your greatest asset….your players. And it should be a league led initiative, not just the individual teams. The NFL and the NBA have been doing this for a long time, with the NHL just figuring this one out a couple of seasons ago. It wasn’t that long ago that names like Matt Dunigan, Doug Flutie, Pinball Clemons, Gizmo Williams, Anthony Calvillo, Mike Pringle and more were recognized across the league. Now, sometimes you need to look at a roster chart to figure out who’s playing. Showcase the best, wherever they play. Also, focus on them as people and personalities. Many of these players also do outstanding work in their respective communities. Promoting them not only as great players but great people. And this also leads me to my next point….
- Keep the players around for a while…..it’s no use showcasing players who probably aren’t going to be on your team next year. I know the nature of pro sports today has made the prospect of staying with one team for your entire career almost impossible. But would there be any harm in trying to sign players for terms longer than 3 years? One of the biggest complaints from a lot of fans, my wife included, is that they don’t recognize anyone on the team from year to year. Trying to keep them around longer wouldn’t hurt, would it?
- Don’t worry about me…..or, to be more specific, fans who are as old as me. You’ve got us, you always have had our support. Now’s the time to market to a younger generation, to make up for all those fans you lost back in the late 80’s and most of the 90’s. Believe me, I know the CFL has shot itself in the foot many times. I can’t believe that, at one time, I actually watched the Lions playing teams from San Antonio and Shreveport! Thankfully, you survived and came back a little stronger from that experience. Now you gotta get younger…find a creative way to show how exciting this game can be to a younger generation. And even though it’s important, don’t dwell on the history and heritage so much, since everyone may already be sick of hearing how their grandparents used to watch Dick Shatto and Ken Ploen back in the day. Make it about today as much as yesterday.
- Fix the business model. Now, I’m no financial or business expert, but there was a good reason the government decided not to give this league a bailout. The league has always been this odd collection of publicly owned teams in Western Canada to privately owned money pits that are in the rest of the league, including the three biggest markets in the country..Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Hamilton has always survived and, after a couple of attempts, Ottawa is back, for now. It’s a strange mix for a league to operate under. On the one hand, the Grey Cup makes money, the league itself is on better financial footing, the TV ratings for CFL games have been solid which makes TSN willing & able to keep the CFL on the air. Somehow, someway, there has to be a master plan or template that either involves a revenue sharing structure or some solid financial foundation for teams that have challenges drawing fans & revenue…and by structure, I don’t mean David Braley owing more than one team. He’s done that already and has probably done more to save the league than anyone, but even he can’t fix this mess.
Now, I know there are a lot of people who could care less about the CFL, even people who call themselves football fans. I stopped arguing with those people a long time ago because they’re still convinced that the bigger audiences, bigger money, bigger exposure of the NFL is true football and that everything else is just crap. That’s fine, even though, once you strip away the shiny allure and compare the games, there’s not much difference.. yet that’s why people love the CFL because it is different. And if you think this would be a great opportunity for the NFL to set up in Canada….forget it. It’s not happening because they’re not interested. For one thing, they don’t need us. They already have our attention, money and devotion. We already cross the border to see the Buffalo Bills or the Seattle Seahawks, so they’ve been getting our money. Plus, I’m not sure even the richest members of the Dragon’s Den have deep enough pockets to come up with the billions of dollars it would take just to get a franchise, let alone a suitable stadium.
I love both the NFL and CFL because I love football. It’s disappointing I won’t get to enjoy watching games this summer & fall and watching some of the best players in the game. It’s the players I feel for the most in all of this. Many will probably find another place to play, wait until next year or, unfortunately, fall behind in their growth as a player & competitor, or finally decide that the game has taken enough from them and leave. To all of them, I wish you nothing but the best. You are all great players, great people, and deserve to be showcased as such.
So, there are my points to consider, dear Canadian Football League….good luck with the reset. I hope you can come back bigger and better.
And if you do, us diehards will be back too!