(An American's View of the CFL)
In 1995, the Canadian Football League (CFL) was on life support.
League attendance was on the decline, television ratings were falling, and the expansion into the United States had been an utter failure. It was so bad that the CFL needed a miracle or it was destined to fold by the start of the next season.
After years of mismanagement by individual teams and failure by the League's head office in Toronto to develop a cohesive marketing and business strategy, many simply believed the CFL was 'toast.' . In fact, the CFL was so poorly managed they had even awarded the Grey Cup (the League Championship Game) to Regina, Saskatchewan – In November!
If you have never been to Regina in November, think Siberia with a better standard of living. Regina is home to the Saskatchewan Roughriders and is the smallest city in the CFL. Awarding Saskatchewan the Grey Cup would be the equivalent to the NFL awarding Green Bay the Super Bowl.
The concern among most fans and media types was that the city did not have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the thousands of out-of-town guests expected to attend what was possibly the final championship game in Canadian professional football history. People crossed their fingers and hoped for the best, though many simply expected the worst. As it turned out, a miracle happened, and the CFL did not fold.
The miracle was the city of Regina, this small city with a big heart. Regina, a city viewed by many as too small to host the Grey Cup proved to have more warmth and soul than Sorel winter boots. The community rallied around the event. The City of Regina welcomed its guests with the biggest party they have ever thrown.
They showed Canadians what this event could be if you just put a little effort and love into the event and welcomed the visitors as if they were family. This small city had put on a show that set the blue print for cities to copy and improve upon for years to come. They showed Canadians that you could have fun at a CFL function and that it was okay to embrace the game.
The 1995 Grey Cup showed other teams and cities how the event could become a spectacle and what could be accomplish if you tried – really tried! That week in Saskatchewan created a buzz throughout the country on how the game was being embraced in Regina.
Canadians took note. Because of Regina's response, the CFL's slide was over and the game again started to record a new interest and regrowth.
Fifteen years on, the CFL continues to move forward in an upward direction. Six weeks ago, the CFL kicked off it's regular season with an average attendance of 30,000 fans per game. The Saskatchewan/Montreal game drew 1.8 million viewers during it's peak time in an exciting, double overtime thriller which was also televised on the NFL Network. The T.V. ratings were what one would expect for a NHL playoff game – not for a CFL regular season game – especially a season opener.
Just a few weeks prior to the opening the season the league owners and the CFL Players Association agreed to a contract that will be in place for the next four years. Both sides understand where the CFL is headed and agreed a few concessions by both sides would only benefit each group in the future. Among the concessions, the two agreed to drug testing of the players beginning in 2011.
Players also agreed to smaller increases in the salary cap ceiling, maxing out team payrolls at $4.5 million per team by 2014. But the fine print in the contract leaves room for the owners to increase the salary cap if revenue increases prior to the agreement's expiration.
Since the CFL owners have increased the salary cap in previuous years, often due to a sudden increases in revenue, it is possible the owners may coontinue do the same thing this time around.
In two years (2012) the current television contract with TSN will expire. The current contract was a five year deal for $80 million. Although small by any other football standards it was a major improvement to the once failing CFL. Since the contract was signed, television viewership has continued to climb. Last year's televised Grey Cup game was watched by over 14 million people; a number which was not attainable just a couple years prior and is equal to what the NFL gets in Canada during the Super Bowl.
Television networks are now anxious to get a piece of the CFL television market and will likely pay record amounts for the opportunity. Some expect the next television deal will be double the current contract price. The CFL is also seeing rejuvenation in stadium renovation and the building of new stadiums.
Currently the B.C. Lions occupy a temporary twenty-seven thousand seat Empire Field while their permanent home undergoes a half billion dollar retrofit. Couple that with a retrofit to Molson Stadium in Montreal and new stadiums under construction or in the planning stages in Winnipeg, Regina, Ottawa and Hamilton. These stadiums will bring in added revenue and will help to strengthen all of the franchises. One can see why many are expecting big things in terms of CFL growth over the next decade.
This last off season a discussion of positive news dominated the CFL forums. No longer are people placated on bad news. The Canadian Football League will never rival the American NFL as a money making machine. Instead, the CFL is carving out its own place in sports all-the-while realizing that it doesn't have to pay millions to attract recruits.
Today, the CFL is as much a symbol of Canada as is Tim Hortons donuts, the game of hockey, or Anne Murray. It is the little engine that could.