No, the CFL does not stand for Chaotic Football League.
But you’d be forgiven for making that assumption over the years. For decades, the league has endured one problem after another – yet has stayed on its feet, which is an endearing quality.
The past two years have been no different, with the COVID-19 pandemic making things especially challenging for a gate-driven league.
The Toronto Argonauts, whose footing in their market started slipping the moment the Blue Jays threw their first pitch in 1977, are arguably in the most precarious position in their storied history heading into what should be a time for celebration -- just the third East final in the past 35 years between the Boatmen and Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday at BMO Field.
But the Argos aren't the only team with problems -- the Edmonton Elks fired their president, GM and coach after a year in which they were winless at home and were heavily overshadowed by Connor McDavid and Alphonso Davies, and the league continues to have trouble generating interest in bigger markets like B.C. and Montreal. Even the league's crown jewel, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, fell well short of a sellout for their playoff game last weekend when 24,001 showed up -- the team's smallest crowd since 2006.
The Argos could only wish 24,000 was a disappointment. The team drew fewer than 10,000 fans for all but one home game this season. After the Ticats beat Montreal last weekend to set up a playoff showdown in Toronto, this headline appeared on Damien Cox's piece in the Toronto Star -- “The Argos will host the Tiger-Cats on Sunday. Could it be the last CFL game in Toronto?”
Without having knowledge of the internal discussions at Argos owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the answer to this question could be yes, no or maybe.
It does appear the Ticats' visit will help Sunday with the Argos opening previously closed sections of the stadium. The key will be riding any momentum into the next season -- something the Argos have failed to do regularly after exciting moments over the past three decades -- the 2012 Grey Cup victory at a packed Rogers Centre being one of the best examples.
The CFL, while stronger in many areas than it was decades ago when stadiums were crumbling, telethons were being held to keep teams afloat and expansion to places like Birmingham, Ala., and Shreveport, La., actually was needed to pay the bills, has many serious issues – and it’s high time the league takes a good look in the mirror. The pandemic is good a time as any to do so with countless businesses and individuals pivoting due to changing circumstances.
The league is a Canadian institution and it would be a shame to just let it rot without putting up a fight.
With that in mind, here are five ideas the league should explore this off-season:
TAKE A HARD LOOK AT THE COMMISSIONER'S ROLE
Randy Ambrosie, in the job since 2017, has had the unenviable task of leading the league through a pandemic.
This, of course, is very challenging. But even with that proviso, the results haven’t been pretty.
In April 2020, Ambrosie told well-respected Canadian Press football writer Dan Ralph the league was looking for as much as $150 million from the federal government. This was a ridiculous ask – especially in the early days of a true world crisis – and it set the tone for the league’s poor performance during the pandemic. Eventually, the ask dropped, but there never was an agreement and the CFL became one of the only major leagues in North America not to play in 2020.
This year, the league returned for a shortened schedule but scoring and attendance (the latter a concern in many leagues) both have taken big hits. The play, at best, has been choppy.
To his credit, Ambrosie found new owners in B.C. and Montreal — albeit after one year of the other teams paying the bills for the Alouettes — but those markets are nowhere close to thriving.
Then there is Toronto, which actually has regressed in terms of market interest under Ambrosie’s watch — and that’s a major problem.
The commissioner’s top job has to be reengaging the league’s three biggest markets.
HAVE DEEP DIALOGUE WITH MLSE
As a private company, MLSE has every right to operate its properties as it sees fit -- and it's not like people are lining up to buy the Argos.
But from the outside looking in, it feels like the Argos are an afterthought at the Toronto sports giant.
MLSE, upon taking ownership of the team, added the Argos’ presidential duties to Toronto FC president Bill Manning in 2018.
Under Manning’s watch, the team missed the playoffs in 2018 and ’19 — resulting in the firings of two coaches and one GM — after capturing the Grey Cup in 2017.
This year, they’ve improved on the field but attendance is at record lows. Meanwhile, TFC was a mess in 2021, finishing well outside the playoffs and making coaching and GM changes.
MLSE, however, rewarded Manning with a five-year extension in March.
Granted, the Argos are a money loser for MLSE, which does just fine on the Maple Leafs and Raptors. But it sure would be nice if the team had its own president with some sort of Canadian football and business background.
Remember, the Argos do not have to be the talk of the town — that is an unrealistic expectation. You simply need to find a way to create a fun atmosphere and buzz that attracts 20,000 fans only nine times a year in one of the biggest markets in North America — which does not seem impossible.
At the moment, it feels like the Argos do little more than open the gates at home games. At one game at BMO Field earlier this year, there was no halftime entertainment, the sound system was muffled and the video screen had pixels out. It didn’t exactly scream ‘major league’.
Does MLSE think things would be better in the ownerless, teamless XFL? For whatever reasons, some signs would suggest so. Multiple reports have indicated MLSE was pushing for the CFL to join forces with a supposedly reincarnated XFL — an idea called off by both leagues earlier this year.
The XFL, apparently, does exist. The league, owned by Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson’s company, recently hired ex-Buffalo Bills executives Russ Brandon and Doug Whaley, whose resumes should include the fact they played significant roles in one of the longest playoff droughts in North American pro sports.
Under new leadership, the Bills have become a contender in the AFC.
GET CREATIVE WITH SCHEDULING
The league has talked about pushing up the schedule, in normal years, to finish earlier than late November — which seems smart.
Sure, snow games are memorable — but windy, rainy, chilly games (which are far more common) are not. It’s very clear people prefer sitting outside on a nice day. The drawback would be going head-to-head with the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it’s not like Canadian teams go deep every year. And even then, fans in, say, Montreal wouldn’t necessarily be heavily invested in a Calgary post-season run.
And how about trying some school -- or camp-day weekday matinees (at a better time for public health)? The Blue Jays have had success with this for years. The AHL’s Toronto Marlies have also had nice turnouts with this strategy. If a kid has fun at reduced prices, maybe they ask mom or dad to go to a future game.
The Argos are the obvious candidate to try something like this, even if it means taking a game or two out of the season-ticket package (that won’t affect many right now, anyway). Combine that strategy with two games during the Canadian National Exhibition — always a better draw — and you might be on to something.
ESTABLISH A COMMITTEE TO MAKE ON-FIELD RECOMMENDATIONS
This season marked the lowest-scoring year for the league since 1979 — and it’s not a blip. Offences have been suffering for years.
There are myriad reasons why this could be the case. The league should get some of its best offensive players and coaches in its history into a room (or on Zoom) and develop a plan to come up with a series of recommendations
The NFL is far more explosive than the CFL right now — and that’s a big issue. The answer isn’t becoming a four-down minor league — it’s figuring out a way for the old CFL (on the field) to return.
REESTABLISH THE CONNECTION WITH CANADIAN UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL
Like the CFL, U Sports football has struggled recently with the usual lopsided results and lower scores after a year off in 2020.
Once again, the Vanier Cup on Saturday will be played on its own in Quebec City rather than as part of Grey Cup week.
Maybe it can’t happen every year, but there’s no good reason why the norm shouldn’t be having the games together — smart people surely could overcome the television and sponsorship hurdles routinely cited as obstacles. What football fan doesn’t want to have another game to go to as part of a national celebration on the Friday night?
The better U Sports is, the better the CFL is.
Working on that relationship — rather than continuing to try to make inroads in Europe and Mexico, which feels like an extreme long shot — should be a CFL focus.