Talking about the CFL: Hey, don’t stop reading!

With Grey Cup CII upon us, I thought this week I’d write something about the venerable old Canadian Football League, even though I know I risk losing most of my readership. I could drop to single digits here, from my usual double.

I’m an unapologetic fan of the CFL, and have been for years and years, through thick and (more often than not) thin. I know that most people, whether you’re a sports fan or not, don’t care about the CFL. And after the season the league has just offered up, it’s harder than ever to defend the old league.

Even the most dedicated fan of the three-down game will have to admit that the 2014 Canadian Football League season was a bust.  This should have been a banner year for the CFL. Ottawa unveiled a new stadium and a new team. Winnipeg’s stadium still has that new stadium smell to it. Hamilton finally moved into its new digs, after the longest series of construction delays in history (lesson to everyone: construction NEVER finishes on time). It was shaping up to be the year when a crop of new quarterbacks made their mark on the league.

But it seemed everything went wrong. Important players fell like dominos this year. Defences dominated, so much so that we saw a number of no-touchdown games, unheard of in the score happy league. Referees decided that they knew more about the game than the players, making games unwatchable. Most worrisome is the number of fans in the stands. The CFL is still, despite the healthy TSN contract, a gate-driven league. Average attendance is down, and attendance in Toronto wasn’t worthy of the word. Crowds were weak in Montreal and Edmonton for the playoffs — playoffs, for crying out loud!

A lot of what went wrong in the CFL this year could be attributed to just having a bad year. Some of the problems can be fixed (better referees, bringing in Americans if we have to), improved TV production (I ask again, TSN, why no super slow-motion? And please, no more Rod Black and Glenn Suitor), and just better luck. But a poll released this week confirms the most worrisome CFL concern, one that may not be fixable.

An Angus Reid poll of about 1,500 Canadians found 24 per cent of respondents said they planned on watching the Grey Cup, which is good. It also found that the CFL was the second most followed pro sport in the country, slightly ahead of Major League Baseball and even the NFL. But here’s where it gets disturbing. When asked if they had to choose between watching either the Grey Cup or the Super Bowl, a huge generation gap emerges. Sixty-one per cent of people 55 and over chose the Grey Cup, while 65 per cent of those 18-34 chose the Super Bowl.

This is a problem. Older Canadians have an affection for the Grey Cup and the CFL, while younger Canadians are lured to the behemoth that is the NFL. Quite a number of years ago, the CFL would have been the unquestioned favourite of almost all Canadians. There was even a time, long long ago, when the CFL could and did bid for important players who came to Canada because they could make more money here. Not any more, obviously.

My concern is that younger Canadians have been permanently drawn into the orbit of the NFL. I still don’t believe the American style of football is superior to the Canadian brand, but there is no question that the televised product leaves Canadian football looking like a 97 lb. weakling. Also, the NFL is the most valuable sports league in the world — Forbes magazine says the average value of an NFL team is $1.43 billion — and a Canadian product competing against the world’s no. 1 sports behemoth can’t win. It’s a corner store versus Wal-Mart.

So, what to do?

First, make it one division. The old east-west rivalry thing doesn’t hold much sway anymore. That was the old Canada, where the west (as a country, not a league) was weaker. Now that western Canada is the economic engine of the country, national rivalries don’t exist anymore. Scrap the two divisions, and force the weaker eastern teams to field better teams.

Second, I would move the season up, way up, to avoid competing with the NFL as much as possible. Start the season in June, or even late May, to wrap up the season in late October. Better weather for the playoffs ensured (if the Grey Cup were in Edmonton this year, it would be a frigid fiasco), and the league would stay as far away as possible from NFL competition.

Third, get the Argonauts out of the Skydome, or whatever they call it now. They averaged about 16,000 fans this year, a disgrace for the biggest city in the country. Admit the most they will draw on any weekend is 25,000, and find them a place that works.

And fourth, get a team in Atlantic Canada. Do whatever it takes.

Now that I have solved all the problems of the Canadian Football League, I will pull up my rocking chair and watch with the rest of the old fogies in the country as the Stampeders destroy the Tiger Cats on Sunday.

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