Lefko on CFL: A tough challenge ahead

With the historic 100th edition of the Grey Cup over, the challenge is underway to make 2013 and beyond relevant.

It’s been a quiet off-season in the Canadian Football League following a year in which one announcement after another highlighted the historic 100th edition of the Grey Cup. The real challenge is underway to make 2013 and beyond relevant.

It is easy to take an anniversary or a symbolic date and pump it up and gain traction and interest from both the consumer base and, for purposes of generating added revenue, the corporate sector.

The CFL rolled out announcements like new dollar bills last year about an existing sponsor/partner or a new one attaching itself to the Grey Cup because of its symbolism. Whether it related to a coin, a book or a stamp or copious other things, it seemed the CFL simply had ample means to create ways to promote the 100th Grey Cup.

Perhaps no event in Canada speaks to national pride more than the Cup — although that wasn’t the case during the infamous U.S. expansion era from 1993-95. No other championship of note in Canada solely involves teams within the country — not the Stanley Cup, nor the Memorial Cup, both of which tug on our heartstrings because hockey is our game.

So that’s why the CFL, which announced its 2013 schedule on Tuesday, has a tough challenge ahead. Some prime sponsors have either ended their associations with the CFL or drastically cut back for reasons that are entirely their own. The toughest thing for any business that needs advertising to promote its brand is acquiring revenue dollars during an economically-challenging time. It was so easy for the CFL to do that in the years leading up to the Grey Cup because it was obvious the amount of attention the 100th Grey Cup game would create.

The CFL went overboard in emphasizing the game — thanks, in large, part, to acquiring seven-digit federal sponsorship money to promote nationalism — because this would be something that wouldn’t happen again for another 100 years, or quite likely ever again. Who knows where the CFL will be in another 100 years or 100 editions of the Cup, whichever comes first?

The train that made numerous stops across Canada to herald the 100th Grey Cup game and the league itself has stopped. From the beginning of its journey to the end, the train symbolized the areas across the country where the CFL has specific relevance — either because it has a team there or is in the vicinity of it, in particular Saskatchewan which has provincial pride in the Roughriders.

The point is, it is easy to market a product when it is attached to something specific. A case in point: the Banjo Bowl. It started off as an insult (albeit in jest) by Winnipeg kicker Troy Westwood, who referred to the people from Regina as “banjo-pickin’ inbreds” leading up to the 2003 West Division Semi-Final between the Bombers and Riders. It became such a controversy — a typical “Only In The CFL” moment — that it developed a life of its own. The following September when the two teams met in their rematch in Winnipeg the week after playing the day before Labour Day, it became known as the Banjo Bowl. And the game subsequently acquired a title sponsor. That’s brilliance.

Labour Day is another means for teams and the CFL to attach itself to a brand. The CFL season usually begins around Labour Day, so it’s a natural to align it with a company or a product, even better if it happens to be Canadian, through various forms of multi-media platforms.

The CFL is moving towards an interesting time. Next year, it will welcome Ottawa back into the fold. The team does not have a name, and that, in itself, has caused some debate, both good and bad. But at least people are talking about it. That creates interest, which in turn leads to promotion. Whether the eventual name, which seems to be Red Blacks, is something positive or negative, the team has created some discussion.

In a perfect world, the CFL will introduce at some point a 10th team, and many are hoping it will be in Atlantic Canada. That has long been a perfect scenario for the CFL to be a coast-to-coast league. The CFL will return to Atlantic Canada this year for the third time in four years. It took a break from it last year following a rather tepid reception in 2011 preceded by incredible hype in 2010. Many reasons were offered for the lukewarm response from one year to the next, but the bottom line is the CFL will only work somewhere in Atlantic Canada or any place else with a proper stadium and solid ownership.

And that’s a difficult task. Finding the funds to build a stadium that properly seats at least 25,000, whether it’s in Moncton or even in Quebec City, which seems like a prime location to add another team, is far more important than pursuing owners.

Twice before the CFL folded in Ottawa because it lacked the right ownership, at least when the teams crumbled, but the existing old and decrepit stadium became an issue, too. The Ottawa team that will kick off in 2013 will have a spanking-new stadium complete with amenities that should make it consumer friendly and attractive to sponsors. But a major reason for the return of football in Ottawa is the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group building the stadium as part of a commercial development that will involve retail businesses and housing. Without the infrastructure to create a solid revenue stream when there are no football games, this whole idea of a team in Ottawa would not work, both philosophically and economically.

Long gone are the days when the CFL needed telethons to support teams or help from the National Football League for badly-needed overall financial support. Teams are stable now due, in part, to the well-being of teams which were once on life support — notably Winnipeg and Saskatchewan — and, of more importance, owners such as David Braley of Bob Young who have the passion to continue pumping money into teams that don’t make money. Braley and Young should be given annual awards for all they do to keep their specific teams in Toronto and Hamilton, respectively, on solid ground. In Braley’s case, he owns and operates two teams. His other one, the B.C. Lions, has become a solid team on and off the field. The Argos won the Grey Cup last year in a dream season, but they are competing in a sports market that requires the team to be strong and exciting.

The battle for the CFL to maintain its importance is like a player fighting hard for an extra yard. The 100th Grey Cup gave the CFL added importance, but the engine isn’t operating anymore, literally and figuratively, so it is full steam ahead.

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