Like the Batman franchise, the Canadian Football League has had many faces and plenty of near-death experiences. And like the caped crusader, the CFL has familiar nemeses, predictable plot lines and a miraculous escape at the end of every story line.
So working up alarm for the CFL is pointless. It was here when we were born, it will be here when we die. The faces and names change, but the dynamic remains.
That said, it’s going to be a hairy episode for three-down football in the 2017 season. Let’s do a mise en scene for CFL: The Dark League Rises.
• The Toronto Argonauts held a pre-season game the other night that was outdrawn by several street mimes in Yorkville. There is no expectation that attendance numbers will grow significantly barring an undefeated season and Bruce Springsteen singing the national anthem.
This in spite of getting themselves into a new stadium with solid ownership from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). It’s been said a million times so let’s make this the last: the Argos are the national advertising lynchpin for the league. While southern Ontario ratings on TSN remain as strong as the Argos’ attendance is weak, the numbers we’re looking at in 2017 aren’t good.
• Having zapped Jeffrey Orridge as commissioner this off-season, the league has yet to fill the post. One source said it was like dealing with “kids” when he did business with the commissioner-less CFL. The job is thankless with this ownership group. Like working for nine Donald Trumps. But they need to get the right person this time.
I can think of several people who’d be perfect. But I like them too much to inflict the CFL board of governors on them.
• With the retirement of Henry Burris, the CFL’s inventory of recognizable stars is down to Bo Levi Mitchell and the guy in Regina whose helmet explodes when the team scores. There was the usual emigration of names to the National Football League over the winter and they can’t return before mid-season. Yes, it’s all about the crest on the helmet in the CFL. But a few stars, please?
• The ongoing controversy over concussions in sport is doing football no favours. While soccer has also been tainted by the revelations about brain injuries, football has received the bulk of the negative stories. There still seems to be a steady supply of athletes playing the sport in Canada, but there’s a decided pushback in the culture against football, rugby and hockey for their violence.
This culture clash also highlights the demographic gap facing the CFL. Its core audience is aging and the league is nowhere with millennials. Being seen as a sport that destroys its participants has to be reversed if the CFL is to prosper among a younger audience.
• The league has had a nice influx of new stadiums or upgrades of late. Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Mosaic Stadium in Regina and Investors Group Field in Winnipeg are impressive new facilities. Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa have renovated facilities. Edmonton still has Commonwealth Stadium, site of the 2018 Grey Cup Festival.
But the arena controversy in Calgary has left the Stampeders (owned by the NHL Flames group) stuck in the fossil known as McMahon Stadium – built in 1960. As a result of their decrepit home, they’ve been passed over in the rotation for the Grey Cup game. It now appears that the city and Flames will build a hockey-only facility, leaving the Stamps in a bad place.
The hockey team has said it will simply walk away from Calgary if it can’t get a suitable new home. That’s not going to happen. And with 20,000 diehard fans for the Stamps, the CFL team isn’t hitting the highway either. But even in an oil downturn, corporate Calgary is a huge factor in the financial equation for the league. Getting the league’s best team into a respectable facility is urgent.
Those are just some of the problems the league faces. They’re serious and there appears little hope of easy solutions. But this is the CFL. It’s a league that has faced the Riddler, the Joker and the Las Vegas Posse – and survived. It’s a league that starts the season with a gun to its head and Dirty Harry saying, “ So, are you feeling lucky, punk?”
It doesn’t scare easy. So long as TSN keeps underwriting the league in its adventures, financial security is assured.
Hope for the best, expect the worst and remember to dress warmly for the Grey Cup game in November.
Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster. Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.
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