x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Is it heads down for CFL?

The Canadian Football League will see Saskatchewan and Montreal compete for the Grey Cup tomorrow. But other than Canadian fans, who else really cares?

Saskatchewan's Jeremy O'Day lifts the Grey Cup following the Roughriders' victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2007.
Saskatchewan's Jeremy O'Day lifts the Grey Cup following the Roughriders' victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2007.

Where else might one find hotel ballrooms filled with cheerleaders and fans singing and dancing arm-in-arm? Where else might you be served pancakes on the street shortly after sunrise? And where else might you see fans not just able to get close to their heroes but, if they are lucky, able to share a drink or sing a song with them as well. Welcome to the Grey Cup, the week-long celebration of Canada's unique brand of football which culminates tomorrow with the 97th championship clash in the cup's 100th year being played in Calgary, Alberta, this year between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Montreal Alouettes.

The Canadian Football League (CFL) will never be mistaken for its louder, richer and flashier neighbour to the south, the National Football League (NFL), but it sure knows how to throw a party. "It's more than a game, it's an annual pilgrimage and a national gathering," said CFL commissioner Mark Cohon. "Thousands of Canadians make the trek to the host city each year for a festival that spans four or five days, and millions of their fellow Canadians gather together to watch the game on television.

"Even in an age where we are more connected by technology than before, Canada remains a vast country with a small and diverse population. Nothing brings us together the same way as the CFL in general, and the Grey Cup in particular." While Canada is regarded as a ice hockey country, and it is certainly that, its citizens retain a soft spot for their domestic version of grid-iron and its quirky differences that separate it from the version of the sport played in the United States.

Whereas in American football teams have four downs to make 10 yards, Canadian football allows teams just three downs to make the same distance. The result is that Canadian football encourages more risk, with teams having to rely more on passing the ball than running it. The Canadian field is 15 yards wider than the American version and 10 yards longer. And instead of 10-yard end zones, in Canada they are 20 yards deep.

CFL teams play in smaller stadiums than those in the NFL, with crowds that average between 25,000 and 30,000. And to give the league a distinctly Canadian flavour, it is required that each team fill almost half of their 42-man squad with Canadians. The biggest differences have nothing to do with the rules of the game. They have to do with distinct cultures of two sports, characterised by one league full of millionaires and the other as one where players earn wages consistent with the fans who pay to watch.

Each CFL team are limited to a salary budget of Cdn$4.2 million (Dh14.5m), meaning the average salary comes in around $70,000, and the league's star quarterbacks earning at the high end get around $400,000 per season. Some CFL players have other jobs during the off-season. Although many players come from the biggest and best American college football programmes - the same ones that give rise to NFL superstars - CFL players generally are respected for their modest egos which stay consistent with their salaries.

Though a healthy percentage of the league's players - around half - have at least some experience in the NFL, the CFL rarely attracts big-name players from America. But since the NFL only accepts a tiny percentage of the thousands of American college football players who leave school each year, the CFL has no trouble being able to attract high-quality athletes. There have actually been more big-name CFL players who have gone on to have success in the NFL than have gone the other way.

Three years ago, Warren Moon became the first player to be enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. Other players, such as quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia, managed to follow Moon by using their their success in Canada to move into NFL jobs. And last winter, former BC Lions defensive lineman Cameron Wake attracted the biggest NFL signing bonus for a CFL player when he was paid $1million by the Miami Dolphins.

For the most part CFL players have a humility that makes them approachable and accessible to fans. To experience the CFL is very much like a ride back in time to a period when athletes were not showered with mind-boggling riches and walked and lived among us. Yet for all its attributes and its relevance in Canadian culture, the dominant issue facing the CFL during the past quarter of a century has been its survival.

While other sports leagues in North America have grown by building new stadiums and arenas, signing billion-dollar television deals and watching their franchise values soar, the CFL got left behind. Part of that is because a league restricted to Canada is limited in terms of the growth it can expect to produce in a country that has just 33 million spread from one coast to the other. But a big part of it has also come from the CFL's struggles to stay relevant in a world where sports fans have more choice within their own markets and the ability to follow any number of sports from around the world.

Against that backdrop, the eight, or occasionally nine-team league has struggled at times to find its niche, particularly in Canada's larger and more sophisticated markets such as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. The result has been times where CFL teams have been unable to produce enough revenue to stay in line with expenses, which is why the league has had to deal with several owners throwing the keys on the table and walking away.

In 2006, the Ottawa Renegades folded when their owners were unwilling to fund what they projected to be another year of substantial losses. In 2003, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts went bankrupt when their owners walked away. During the late 1990s, following the collapse of an attempt to expand into several US markets, the league came so close to going under that it needed to secure a loan from the NFL just to stay in business. Cohon believes those days are behind the CFL, presenting it as a more stable place to do business and a league poised for real growth. In the spring of 2008, the league announced a conditional expansion franchise to a group in Ottawa, conditional on that group being able to complete a deal to build a new stadium. The stadium contract is moving towards the final stages and it appears a team could be back in Ottawa as early as 2013.

Next season the CFL will stage a regular season game in Moncton, New Brunswick, in what could be a first step towards the possibility of establishing a team in Atlantic Canada, giving the league a foothold in all major regions of the country. No time demonstrates the CFL's charm like Grey Cup Week, the annual run-up to its championship game where fans from across the country flock to the host city to celebrate their sport and party.

Unlike the Super Bowl in the US which is aimed at corporate America, Grey Cup week is teeming with ordinary folks who flood to events throughout the host city. At most Grey Cup events the cost of admission ranges from nothing to $20. And the only trouble with most of them is the queue to get in. On game-day there are routinely more than 50,000 fans in attendance who pay hundreds of dollars to sit in frozen temperatures to take in the league's championship game.

Yet the CFL continues to face its challenges. It was only two years ago that the NFL nearly spoiled the CFL's Grey Cup party in Toronto by announcing that the Buffalo Bills would begin playing one home game per season in Canada's biggest city. The popularity of the NFL in Canada has been a constant threat to the CFL, as some fans in Canada dismiss the CFL as an inferior product played by inferior athletes.

The NFL began playing some exhibition games in Canada during the 1990s but the idea of playing regular season games in Canada brought howls of protest from the league and its many supporters across the country. Many saw the move as a precursor to the Bills eventually moving to Toronto since Buffalo is an American city with a depressed economy and a declining population. Thus far, the impact of the Bills in Toronto has been insignificant, with the NFL games in Toronto failing to captivate the market because fans in Canada have been reluctant to pay top dollar to watch a team they do not consider their own and who have performed badly on the field.

The idea of the Bills moving north has raised questions of whether the Toronto Argonauts could survive and whether the CFL could survive without Toronto. There has been talk of the CFL taking on a developmental role in partnership with the NFL, but the league is strictly opposed to any relationship that would position it as a feeder league. The CFL has used the threat as a springboard to market itself with a strong nationalist brand, selling its history as a league interwoven through Canadian culture with roots that go back a century.

Despite the fact that most of the league's star players and its coaches are Americans, that approach seems to be resonating with fans. Which is part of why several million of them will tune in tomorrow for what is the largest television audience in Canada each year. History would tell us that the CFL's challenges are not all behind it. And that some day in the not-too-distant future, the league will again have to stare down a crisis and have faith that its fans will see it through once again.

But for this week, the CFL and its fans are happy to just kick back and have some fun. sports@thenational.ae