"I have loved football as an almost mythic game since I was in the fourth grade. To me, the game wasn't even grounded in reality. The uniform turned you into a warrior. Being on a team, the mythology of physical combat, the struggle against the elements, the narrative of the game..." ~ Steve Sabol (NFL Films)

Sunday, June 6, 2021

It is Still "Our League"

(Originally published on March 15, 2021) As one of those few Americans who follows the CFL religiously but also lives in a country where anything not "NFL" is deemed inferior, the last week in Canadian football news has been, by all accounts, a very surreal one.  It began with the death of a beloved player and one who unfortunately, due to my lack of access to the Canadian airwaves 40 years ago, I never got to see play. The remembrance of him reminded me of the days after Walter Payton's untimely death here in the home of American pro football, Chicago (sorry Canton, but that is a fact).  We as fans both north and south love our heroes of the past. However, it abruptly turned when news broke about where the Canadian pro game is heading.

I for one love my professional football history be it CFL, NFL, WFL, USFL, etc., and, like Scott Adamson, take great pleasure in simply just being a fan. However, unlike Scott, whose sports writing work I greatly admire and who turned his youthful passion into a successful sports writing career, I ended up being a probation officer and Navy Reserve intelligence officer. My last sports writing job was that of the sports editor and writer of my high school newspaper, The Kankakee (Illinois) Bishop McNamara Blarney Stone. My greatest story was that of the Fighting Irish winning our first state championship.  Hopefully I didn't peak too early, and now, with the CFL seemingly on the verge of either rebirth or extinction, I decided that now is the time to truly find the time to be a citizen sports print journalist, just as many of my friends are CFL podcasters.

My @CFLAmerica Twitter handle has been around awhile, and it was Lanny and Scotty over at Tokyo's CFL Podcast who pretty much inspired me into the friendly world of CFL social media. I haven't regretted that decision since and I have gained much over the last few years from the friendships gained with the likes of Joe and Os with the Red, White and Blue Podcast, Andrew and Mike over at The Turf District, Doug with The Argos Fancast, and my fellow serviceman Rod with the Wood Cookie SawCast. Other CFLers are also now people I consider friends thanks to the wonder of social media and the sports only focus of my time on it. 

Last year, just like I had for several years before, I looked forward to another CFL season, but world events took all that away from us. Clearly the canceling of a football season is nothing to what many have lost in the way of lives, loved ones, jobs, homes, and so much much more.  Football in the end is a game and distraction from the real world problems and issues we face everyday.  As Sonny Werblin's wife once remarked to a naive Joe Namath, football is "show business."  And it is the business part of football that has led the CFL to where it is now and what many of us are either rejoicing or fearing, American expansion....

I predict that at some point soon someone will create a merged logo

Yes, an alliance or merger, no matter the name is CFL expansion, but without the fees and high overhead that comes with coming to America, and like any other company that ties the knot with another, no matter what we as customers think or want, ultimately what matters is the bottom line, and here is where many, with good reason, are worried.  Will catering to American rules result in the destruction  or extinction of yet another Canadian company? Possibly, but if done right, the alliance of an over 100 year institution with basically a company that exists on paper, can possibly succeed where countless others have failed. History matters, and when it comes to failed attempts to launch, sustain or merge leagues, there are plenty of examples what not to do and how to do things better. If we want "Our League" to survive here is what league and franchise leaders need to consider.

Obviously money is the most important factor here, and unlike the NFL, neither the CFL or XFL will ever be in a position to command the amounts the Evil Empire consumes every year in rights fees, merchandising, licensing, and attendance.  Anyone who thinks otherwise are foolish. One way to increase revenue streams I believe is not charge so damned much for those items that help put asses in the seats starting with the cost of a ticket for the game.  Not that many years ago the Eskimos increased attendance simply by lowering some of the ticket prices for the season. While it did not lead to sell outs, on TV there was a noticeable increase of asses in the seats, and that image of more people attending games will hopefully cause more families to buy tickets if said purchase (and concessions) won't break the bank. The XFL in 2020 drew fans by making the tickets affordable and within the reach of the common man, as did the AAF in 2019.

Marketing matters, and history shows us in sports that when you market there is a good likelihood that your investment in advertising will pay off. The CFL and XFL, if they align, need to work closely with each other and take the best of ideas of marketing from the Evil Empire and other sports to create a demand for an event and fandom that people will migrate to, especially the youth, for they are the future of football, and unless you pass that love for football on to children, much like the movie 'Children of Men' showed, your society (in this case league) will die off. Which is why the NFL is now showing games on Nickelodeon. They have figured out that in order for the Evil Empire to maintain it's stranglehold on America, it has to recruit new fans, and they do a pretty good job of it.

Mind you that many of these youths could easily be swayed to be CFL fans if the league put as much effort into programs like flag football and licensed publishers like Scholastic to put out the same kinds of books that the NFL has pumped out year after year.  My NFL fandom began because of those Scholastic books my parents bought as a child to encourage me to read, and as much as I love to say NFL Films is why I love football so much, it is those books from my childhood in the 1970s, like the 'NFL Fun Book," that have led me to buy all the crap the Evil Empire sells, including Madden. Which, is another example of what the leagues need to do to survive and thrive, and sorry Canuck Games, your product right now isn't the one they league needs to gain new fans. Your graphics and play are crap compared to what Madden has to offer, but hey, at least you have tried.

So, after four paragraphs of what to me seems like ranting, here are some things to consider when thinking about the proposed alliance. Mind you, we all know this is not a done deal, but let's face it, without it, the CFL and XFL will likely disappear. Of the two leagues, the CFL has all the tradition and identity, and therefore, if it is going to make compromises, there are several ways this new CFL (Continental Football League), "Our League," can maintain the traditions of the past while attracting new fans, be they north or south of the border.

"Continental" Seems like a good fit
Aside from retaining the name "CFL," most of the Canadian traditions should be kept by the original nine. I say original nine because all the XFL teams are, let's face it, just logos now. The XFL has no tradition and it has no true history. The XFL of 2020, like the AAF, was a great idea that failed because of the inability of their idiot founders to be honest with people and remain committed.  CFL owners are, by and large, very committed, while the current owners of the XFL seem like better businessmen than the idiot who ran the first XFL into the ground in 2001 and screwed his employees the second time around in 2020.

I will be honest here to about us Americans, whether the game is a three or four down one, we won't care if the CFL product is worth watching. When the CFL plays here on ESPN the games are definitely worth watching, the problem is that no one here knows when CFL games are on.  If you want people to watch you can't rely on word of mouth, Twitter or Facebook to get the message out.  You need sportswriters and networks to care and give a crap, and you need to more than The Rock to generate buzz.  Love him or hate him, but Vince McMahon, made headlines in 2001 and put the XFL on the media map. The problem there was the crap product wasn't worth the time or attention of many, including myself (though to be fair, I had just started my current job and football wasn't really my main focus during those months the league bombed).

The lessons to of the last time the CFL came to America also need to be remembered.  This is where the CFL needs to be flexible because simply most of the XFL stadiums can't accommodate a Canadian field. I need to take a look at the stadiums of the XFL in 2020, but I am pretty sure that few if any have the amount of real estate needed to play pure Canadian ball.  When the CFL came to the USA in the 1990s only Baltimore, Sacramento and San Antonio could accommodate a regulation field, and that in itself was an embarrassment on both sides because it was clear that neither the league nor the teams had given any thought as to how the Canadian game here would work.  Sadly old Memorial Stadium is gone, and a Canadian team in San Antonio is a non-starter (thought the revival of the AAF Commanders would put asses in the seats as they drew very well). So how do you fix that glaring issue? Here is where the lessons of history and other sports come into play, this time from the world of baseball.

In baseball, the fields are all different. Of course the infield dimensions are the same, but the outfields? They vary from one ballpark to the next and no two dimensions are the same.  Why can't in this alliance can we have two leagues play an interlocking schedule like they do in baseball and when the American teams come to Canada, the game is a Canadian one, and when the Canadian teams travel south, they play by the American rules? By maintaining the balance and having an arrange similar to what Major League Baseball has Our League, I believe, can maintain it's identity, gain new fans, and prosper. They Grey Cup and traditions can be maintained while on field competition with XFL teams will generate a lot of buzz and put asses in the seats.

I have never been to a CFL game in person, but I watch it religiously and follow it more closely than any other league or sport. Being in Chicago I live near a lot of still living professional football history in the forms of Wrigley Field and Soldier Field (or as we say here, "Soldiers Field"). Had the pandemic not happened I would have likely seen my first CFL game last year or this year. I only hope the businessmen and women who are much smarter than me figure out a way to keep our league from failing and enable it to succeed and return it to the glory of it's past. I also hope they figure out a way to make the newer league successful, so that it does not close shop for a third time.   The success of both leagues is now contingent on the other, and with that said it brings to mind something I am often fond of saying- "football unites us all!"

Starting from today, I will be publishing weekly articles and essays on CFL history and business, with an emphasis not so much on X's and O's, but rather on fandom and what the game means for fans. As we embark down the road in what hopefully will soon be a post-pandemic world I will be publishing old articles found on the Internet along with an analysis of how it relates to the game and league of yesterday, today and in the future.  

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