RED DEER, Alta. Nov. 22, 2016/ Troy Media/ – That huge sigh of relief you heard last Sunday came from Canadian Football League headquarters.
CFL officials were staring at the prospect of a Grey Cup final that only Alberta would be interested in, played in front of a half-empty BMO Field in Toronto.
Luckily for them, the Ottawa Redblacks beat the Edmonton Eskimos 35-23 in the East Division final on Sunday.
Now the Redblacks become fodder for the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup on Sunday. But at least an East Division team is in the national final. The prospect of a Stampeders-Eskimos championship would have been devastating.
Last month, the CFL announced it was slashing prices for its annual bash of Canadiana to as low as $85 a seat. The stadium has a capacity of 35,000 but was only about 50 per cent sold for the championship game – and the event is usually sold out well in advance in buildings 20,000 seats larger.
At the time of the ticket price cut, the hometown Argos were still very much in playoff contention. It was a hard pill for the organizing committee and new league commissioner Jeffrey Orridge to swallow.
There is still a wide selection of tickets available for the game, which shows the sad slide the league has taken.
There are plenty of reasons for the CFL’s decline.
At the top of the list are two officiating-related issues.
Far too many games are dragged down, frustrating fans and players alike, due to inconsistent refereeing. This has been a plague on the league for many seasons, but seems to be getting worse. It may be time for the league to look at full-time refs, or find some other way to improve officiating. The credibility of the league depends on it.
The other big officiating-related issue is the reliance on instant replay. While the goal to get every call right is admirable, when rules seem like a moving target – take the fine line between contesting a ball or pass interference – it becomes a confusing mess. And taking several minutes to exam replays, sometimes with no clearcut ruling, sucks the life from the game.
In truth, bounces even out over the course of a season and replays are extraneous.
Ineffective marketing has also been a league issue in recent years. Attendance has fallen across the league. In markets like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, there are many other options for the entertainment dollar.
Scheduling has also been a big problem. The Eskimos, for example, played four of their first five games at home, didn’t play a single home game in October and didn’t face either of their two big rivals after Week 13. It’s extremely difficult to build a fan base with that kind of a schedule.
The playoff format is also an issue. In a nine-team league, there is no reason six teams should make the post-season. And having a team from Edmonton in the East final, as a result of the crossover playoff schedule, is ridiculous.
But perhaps the biggest problem may be the Grey Cup hosts, the Toronto Argonauts. A change in ownership and new digs – they had played in cavernous Rogers Centre since 1989 – were supposed to reinvigorate the league’s oldest franchise. Instead, they averaged a league-worst 16,380 fans a game, 60 per cent capacity.
The fact they are having difficulty selling the Grey Cup in the Big Smoke is not a shocker. It’s an over-saturated market and the owners also have stakes in the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC. The Argos are far down on their list of priorities and the fan base responds in kind.
This is the third time in 10 years Toronto has hosted the Grey Cup. The novelty has worn off, especially since Toronto has hosted a wide range of top sports events recently, including the World Cup of Hockey.
There is some hope, however. Ottawa and Hamilton have both turned around seemingly-doomed franchises and resurrected their fan bases.
In fact, Ottawa has lost its team twice – yet the Redblacks may save this Grey Cup from being a complete embarrassment.
Troy Media columnist Josh Aldrich has spent the last 14 years covering the wide world of sports in B.C. and Alberta. Josh is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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