Well, as some of you may have figured from the title of the blog, I’m an American who enjoys watching CFL football games. I do follow the NFL and college football closely, but as a guy who has spent the last couple years enjoying what I’ve seen happen on the CFL stage, it’s a brand of football with traditions of its own that if you watch with an open mind, you can also come to like. It does have different field dimensions such as 110 yard long fields with 20 yard deep endzones and it only has 3 downs, returnable punts with the no yards rule, and the rouge rules which add some interesting twists to the game. While not all the rules to this game are likable right away, there are elements of this that make the endings to games more exciting instead of your typical run and grind the clock out games in the NFL and college.
One thing that very much surprised me about this league was that it did at one time attempt to expand into the USA, and there were reasons behind this. I don’t think the general idea of this was a bad one, but the factors that brought it about as well as how it was done was a bad idea.
The league attempted to do this before because its own teams were having financial problems at the time, there was no salary cap implemented, and telecasts of their games were not as many and not as profitable. The league therefore saw the opportunity to try its hand down south and perhaps gain some influx of American dollars into it to keep it alive. Perhaps what had also encouraged this was that 2 owners of teams that were to be a part of an NFL expansion league that never got launched, saw the opportunity when the CFL announced it was going to open the door to the USA. Since the opportunity seemed to be there the CFL figured, why not? But the league had perhaps become so desperate to get money that they didn’t take the time to fully realize what they were doing with their expansion.
One reason this was going to fail was because of the failure to test the waters in the areas that they were headed to. As you know, the NFL wishes to place teams in Toronto and London, but they are not doing so without some steady tests to try and create a demand for an NFL team in those cities. While many Americans oppose this plan, the NFL is trying to do their homework with this. The CFL had games played on neutral fields back in the 50s and 60s, but prior to the USA expansion, they only played one neutral field game in 1992 in Portland, OR but that city never had a CFL team placed there during the expansion years. All the other teams were founded in uncharted territories with no neutral field games held.
In connection to failure to test the water, the CFL placed its American teams way too far south of the border and in locations that were horrible choices for a CFL team. The problems this created was that the Canadian teams had to travel way too far week in and week out to be able to play these teams, and visiting fans who are already somewhat limited for traveling expenses within Canada itself, were at an even bigger disadvantage here. One such terrible place that makes you wonder what the CFL was thinking was Las Vegas. That city is a vacation city where people go to have fun in the casinos and get away from it all, not where they go to watch sports. And as you might guess that Las Vegas team was the worst CFL American team both on the field and in attendance numbers and it nearly bankrupted the league.
The CFL commissioner was also heavily out of touch with the American target audience in the southern states. In Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama where they attempted to start teams, College football dominated Saturdays and there was no way the league could even begin to compete with that once September rolled around. Birmingham, Memphis, and Shreveport’s owners constantly complained to the CFL commissioner to change the scheduling so they would not have to deal with the college football competition, but he refused and as a result, it was obvious the league was going to die in those locations, on top of the Shreveport owner’s terrible money management problems.
The only successful American team was Baltimore, not only because this team was in the largest city down there with no NFL team at the time, but it was also closest to its Canadian neighbors of Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Their owner also infused his team with Canadian talent and experience, something that the other owners failed to do. The city was able to market this team and quench a football hunger to a fan base that wanted football again, and did not have a college football fever running through them. But of course when the old Cleveland Browns announced they were becoming the Baltimore Ravens, this league was over instantly.
Another factor that had perhaps caused the demise of the CFL in America was a time in the 80s when the NFL went on strike and NBC attempted to fill its weekend sports lineup with CFL games, particularly on Sunday afternoons in order to try and satisfy NFL fans’ football hunger. They even supplied their own camera crews and football announcers for these games, but they would end up with bad games that got them bad ratings, plus the American viewers didn’t like the 3 down rule to the game and what not. The memories of these failed games on that network perhaps kept many Americans away from the games once they came down south.
Plus without good enough television coverage, and no online platforms to use to telecast their games, the league came and went in the USA without hardly anyone knowing it was even there. But times have changed since then and there are a few things that could be done correctly to make a USA expansion more feasible this time.
First, as I already mentioned, the waters need to be tested with good CFL teams playing games on neutral USA fields, to be able to spark interest from American fans in the game. Without a demand for American CFL teams, expansion will fail.
Second, you absolutely have to keep the teams in northern state markets. The ones with the closest connections to Canada in my opinion are Michigan, and upstate New York. So long as you put the CFL team in the center of New York away from the Buffalo Bills, you could probably garner some interest in that territory. Plus you’d probably be in a safety zone in Rochester or somewhere around there that would not be affected by college football. You may be able to check out cities in New England such as Hartford and Providence, provided you avoid conflicts with New England Patriots games. Michigan may have a market if you explored the Grand Rapids area, an area somewhat away from the Lions, and college football’s UM Wolverines and MSU Spartans. States that are out of the question are Wisconsin (that whole state is engulfed in Packer green and gold, not a chance for success there, trust me), Minnesota (no cities beyond Minneapolis, which is engulfed in Vikings, Twins, Timber Wolves, and Wild), Illinois (Chicago Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, and Northwestern University), and Ohio (Saturdays are dominated by Ohio State football, and Sundays the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are on everyone’s TV).
Keep in mind too, that instead of trying to dot the whole USA with CFL teams, limit them to only 2 teams at most in order to keep the league’s identity Canadian. Also, work out a deal with the USA government to make sure the import/non-import rules are workable with their labor laws. Remember, keeping it north where more people will have familiarity with Canada and potentially have watched CFL games before is critical to getting the league started in the USA.
Also, the CFL should add at least one more Canadian team to balance out the East and West conferences to the already 9 they have. This would show that expansion can be done and maintained, and such a team would be placed in Quebec City, or Halifax. Having 10 Canadian teams plus 2 American teams would add a little more variety and competition into the schedule of the CFL and perhaps cut down on the number of opponents you have to play 3 or 4 times in a year. It could also add in the amount of revenue and lead to some higher salaries for some players.
The US venues where the two teams would be added to would also need regulation-sized fields to match the CFL requirements. The coaches and players of the teams should also be ones who have had knowledge and experience of the CFL game and know just how to build teams.
One thing that could be opening the door for this is the picking up of games by NBCSN, a sports channel in the USA that’s decided to broadcast a number of CFL games including the Grey Cup. With more sports channels than ever, plus online streaming platforms used by a number of sports channels, the CFL has greater potential to reach USA viewers now than ever before, plus social media. A few other networks getting a contract with this league such as Fox Sports 1 or CBSSN could also greatly contribute to this, and ESPN3 has been a carrier of CFL games for a while now in the USA. An even closer partnership of these networks with Canadian networks including TSN and CBC could also make for more exposure for the league.
All that to say, expanding the CFL is a daunting task that would require great planning and an achievable goal instead of operating on the fly, but not impossible. Perhaps the league had just tried expansion a little too early when America was not ready for it yet. Things are changing nowadays and if it is done correctly, the CFL could be setting itself up for a greater chance of success.