Tag Archives: CFL

Winning Isn’t Everything. In Today’s Sports it Amounts to Very Little

By Jason Menard

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi.

“… I’m not sure people want to see a team at home that has a 9-0 record but the average score is 12-7. I think they’d much rather see us .500 at home with an average score of 38-34.” – Chris Rudge, executive chairman and CEO of the Toronto Argonauts. Continue reading

Storm Clouds on CFL Horizon

By Jason Menard

Look off in the horizon Canadian Football League fans. That faint patch of grey out there could be storm clouds brewing. And while the threat of inclement weather is often worse than what develops, a proposed new professional football league south of the border could eventually rain on the CFL’s parade.

The most recent edition of Play, the New York Times’ sports magazine, featured an interview with Bill Hambrecht who is spearheading a campaign to start a rival football league – the United Football League – designed to combat the National Football League’s monopoly on the sport in the U.S.

Unfortunately, if this battle ever comes to fruition, it is CFL fans who are going to be caught in the crossfire.

There have been other contenders in the past who have shown themselves to be nothing more than pretenders in the long run: the USFL, the World League of American Football, the much-maligned wrestling-inspired XFL, and even the niche Arena League. All came in full of pomp, circumstance, and bluster ready to bring the NFL to its knees with their new business models, style of game, or atmosphere. And they all, in varying degrees, fell by the wayside.

But this one seems different. Maybe it’s because there are already some big names attached: Google’s Tim Armstrong is on board at the league level and Maverick (and maverick) owner Mark Cuban has pledged support for the league and may take the league’s Las Vegas franchise. Or maybe it’s because the business model is appealing to the fans – the club is evenly distributed between its owner, the league, and fans who can purchase one-third of the franchise through buying shares in the team.

Or maybe because the talent is out there – and those would much rather be showcasing their wares in cities like San Antonio, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles than Regina, Calgary, and Hamilton. And if there’s a viable business plan out there that would facilitate the jump to the brighter lights and bigger cities south of the border, it would be hard for any CFL player – American or Canadian – to resist the call.

In fact, the article expressly stated that while the new league, with its salary cap and financing, wouldn’t be able to afford the elite players and prospects, they would be able to make financially compelling offers to its targeted demographic – the players on the lower rung of the NFL roster, practice squad players, Arena leaguers, and CFLers.

The CFL has been on an upswing for a few years now. Talented players stock each and every roster. Fans in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver are embracing the league in much the same way as those in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Regina always have. The depth and quality of the league’s Canadian content continues to improve and it has been complemented well by talented American-born players. But what’s fuelled the CFL’s engine is the steady stream of players who are just not good enough to make the NFL. The fact that the CFL is a de facto minor league that allows players entering their option years to fly the coop for the smaller fields and bigger paycheques south of the 49 th has also been appealing for American college football grads looking to audition for a future role.

But let’s face it. If you’re a Texan, playing at the University of Texas, where would you rather go when you college career is finished? San Antonio or Saskatchewan? The NFL doesn’t have a presence in 21 of the top 50 markets in the U.S. Those are attractive destinations for anyone looking to play professional football – and those are exactly the cities in which the UFL is looking to set up shop.

The CFL is a great league and it’s a great game, but it’s nothing without the talented players that populate its roster. If a start-up league is able to offer a more financially lucrative option for players – one in which they’re playing on American network TV instead of the CBC – the CFL’s rosters would be decimated.

Unfortunately, there’s little the CFL can do but wait and hope that this league falls by the wayside, just like the others before it. In fact, the best thing for the CFL would be if the UFL decided to take on the NFL directly. The NFL juggernaut has shown remarkable efficacy in mercilessly squashing its direct competition, and would respond in kind to a direct assault.

But if the UFL decides to play it smart and complement the NFL as opposed to compete, then those storm clouds over the CFL’s horizon will continue to grow and get darker. And when the rain finally comes, something is bound to get washed away.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

CFL Entry Draft? Woe Canada

By Jason Menard

If the National Football League entry draft is a two-day information orgy, then the Canadian Football League’s version is more akin to a teenager’s first time in the back of a car – unmemorable and over before you know it. But, in both cases, it’s all about passion – a fact that the CFL’s brass and TV executives should take into strong consideration.

Sure, it’s not fair to compare leagues. It’s not even a matter of comparing apples and oranges. They’re both potatoes – just one league is known as small potatoes and another is the province of Prince Edward Island . Unfortunately, when you decide to run your draft in the same week as your south-of-the-border brethren, then you’re inviting those comparisons. And, in this case, the CFL gets mashed.

It’s too bad, really, because there are a significant number of people out there – at least those north of the 49 th – that consider the CFL game superior to that played in the United States . Sure, the quality and size of athletes may differ, but 12-man football, played on a wider field has more than its share of converts.

And ask CBC how much they love the Grey Cup! They’re consistently amongst the top-rated broadcasts on Canadian television. The interest, albeit intermittently, is there. So why does the league feel the need to scrimp when it comes to promoting its future.

NFL fans pore over Web page after Web page, searching out the most obscure facts about a player their team may pick in the seventh round. Major sports news outlets dedicate copious resources and staff to not just cover the event, but build it up into the orgiastic frenzy it becomes. Overhyped? Probably. But it’s an event that sells hope, promise, and potential for a brighter future for all of the league’s clubs.

The CFL’s draft? Well, fans will have to head to the Web to catch it, because there’s no TV. Not that there’s anything to see. While the NFL brings its decision-makers to a central location and ensures that most of the potential top prospects come along for the ride, CFL franchises participate in a conference call to select their future crop of Canadian stars.

Efficient? Yes. Compelling viewing? Only for those who like to watch paint dry.

There is interest in the CFL in this country. A former football wasteland like Montreal now is one of the league’s model franchises and the game is a hot ticket in a city that, arguably, has significantly more entertainment options at its disposal than any other Canadian metropolis. Toronto , under the amiable Pinball Clemons, has begun to make a comeback – no doubt buoyed by the club’s recent successes. And TSN’s Friday Night Football broadcasts are a staple of the network that offers a visual representation of the potential that exists league-wide.

So why not take a chance and highlight some of our young Canadian talent on a day where the future of the league is being decided? In the short-term, you may lose money – but this is an investment in the future of the league. The seeds of interest sewn today will grow into a passion for anyone who loves the game of football.

One of the problems is the CFL draft is about Canadians. These players form the backbone of the league, due to its import cap, but are often chosen from less-sexy positions like offensive and defensive line and linebackers. In large part, the marquee talent – especially quarterbacks and running backs – is culled from U.S.-bred players who weren’t able to crack an NFL franchise.

Yet, these very players who are being drafted are the same players that many future fans go to school with, or live in the same community as. There’s an innate interest for fans of a university’s football program or members of a community in watching one of their own succeed. And when that affinity is set up right from the outset, then a reason to watch the games themselves becomes vested in these people, who very quickly will become fans.

And there’s a chance to sell the storied history of our great game. Players play, but people sell, and getting to know the faces behind the mask and the innovators behind the game will enable people to grow more attached to the game.

We’re seeing what the seeds of interest have sewn in Quebec . Their minor league football program – in large part prompted and supported by interest in the Montreal Alouettes – is one of the finest in the country and has produced a university powerhouse in Laval . That same passion could be stoked across this great land of ours.

Expansion is a wonderful thought, and there are many reasons why there should be a team in Halifax , Quebec City, or even London or Kitchener . But the foundation for that future growth must be cemented in passion. If there’s a hunger throughout the country for the game, then delivering the product gets that much easier.

It’s all about stoking passion — so how about letting fans be voyeurs on the future?

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Grey Cup Start Time One Day Too Late

By Jason Menard

There’s nothing wrong with competition. The problem comes when you’re throwing away your best stuff against something that’s way out of your league.

The Canadian Football League, an entity that seems to succeed from time to time in spite of itself, will broadcast its annual showcase event on Sunday, with the playing of the Grey Cup final between the B.C. Lions and the Montreal Alouettes. Of course, with a 5:00 p.m. start time, the game will be up against the Detroit Lions versus the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks facing the San Francisco 49ers, and a marquee match-up featuring the Dallas Cowboys hosting the Indianapolis Colts.

Sure, the Grey Cup will pull in its standard numbers, but how much better could they be if they stopped playing David to the National Football League’s goliath each and every week? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning when and where to pick your fights, but the CFL brass continues to fight a battle it can’t win, when an easier – and more profitable – solution is at hand.

Sundays are NFL days for football fans. Sure, there are those hardcore CFL fans who will choose to watch their beloved league over any gridiron competition. However, by continually matching CFL games against NFL competition, the league’s brass is missing an opportunity to attract new fans to the game.

Football fans love their sport. South of the border, Friday nights are dedicated to high school games, Saturday’s are the domain of the collegiate ranks, and the NFL rules Sunday. And while the CFL has a die-hard contingent of regular fans, for the most part Canadians aren’t as invested at the high school or university ranks. U.S. college programs can fill 80,000+ seat stadiums. Canadian colleges consider 3,000 fans an outstanding gate. High school sports south of the 49 th are broadcast on TV; here you’ll have to trek to your local school to peer through the gates. But instead of condemning fans’ lack of support for the amateur ranks, it’s high time the CFL take advantage of the time that’s available to them and make a play for the viewing public.

In the States, the NFL shies away from Friday and Saturday broadcasts because they don’t want to undermine the popularity of amateur sports. They know that the popularity of those levels eventually acts as a free feeder system for the professional ranks. In Canada, the opposite must happen. Instead of developing grassroots support, the CFL must establish the professional game as the ideal, towards which younger people will be drawn.

Some people get it. TSN has created a very successful franchise in Friday Night Football. It’s a popular broadcast and it serves as a forum for attracting football fans – not just CFL afficiandos – north of the border. We need more of this thinking, not less. The CFL needs to understand that Sundays are taken. The last three games of the year – arguably the most compelling matches of the season – are broadcast head-to-head against NFL competition. Sure, you’re going to retain the same audience as always, but you’re missing out on an opportunity to showcase your wares to an even larger demographic.

Play these games on Saturday. If the CBC gets its act together, they could anchor a Grey Cup broadcast with two compelling all-Canadian match-ups on Hockey Night in Canada. Promote the hell out of it as a celebration of Canadian sport! Start hyping the event weeks in advance and cross-promote on various network shows. Essentially, capture the eyes of those for whom the CFL is not a regular part of their viewing diet and stoke the fires of hunger for the event!

Unfortunately, the same people who have made the Grey Cup a tradition in their living rooms will continue to do so. Those others, for whom the NFL remains the Holy Grail, will not choose an unknown commodity over the product that they’ve confirmed that they enjoy. And save for a Janet-Jacksonesque slip by Nelly Furtado, the CFL’s marquee game will represent another opportunity lost.

The CFL’s decision to force people to choose between sports is a losing cause. This year, many people will be tuning in to watch the Colts continue their quest of perfection. Then they’ll transition into a Sunday night game that’s been bolstered by the NFL’s decision to permit flexible scheduling – thereby ensuring that a compelling match-up will be shown on their prime time schedule.

Those fans are spoken for. But what are they doing on Saturday afternoon? If they’re hungry for football, and the game’s marketed correctly, is it not conceivable that some of them may tune in for the Canadian league’s most important event? And what’s the worst that could happen? Some of them may actually enjoy the game. The CFL is an exciting product, featuring talented athletes playing a dynamic version of the game. Many people, in fact, think the Canadian game is the better version overall – so why not expose football fans to this event without making them actively stray from the brand to which they’ve been loyal?

Perish the thought. Marketing a great game to a football-hungry audience at a time where there’s no similar competition? That makes too much sense. Of course, for a league that stumbles upon success in spite of itself, the easy road is never the one taken.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Marshall Plan Needs a Second Chance

By Jason Menard

In a game filled with second, third, and even fourth chances, let’s hope that deposed Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Greg Marshall gets another shot at the big time sooner rather than later. After all, his success, or lack thereof, will go a long way in determining whether a Canuck will take the reins of a Canadian squad in our nation’s football league.

In replacing Marshall, at least in the interim, with a hall-of-fame legend in Ron Lancaster, the Tiger-Cats gave up on the great Canadian experiment – and may put the idea of a Canadian coach back on the sidelines for the foreseeable future.

Marshall worked his way up the ranks, serving as an assistant for the powerhouse University of Western Ontario Mustangs football squad before getting the chance to helm his own ship with the McMaster Marauders. It was there that Marshall proved his coaching prowess, taking the Hamilton squad from also-ran status to perennial power – usurping his former employer in the process.

Back in 2004, the Tiger-Cats took a flyer on a coach who had proven himself in the Canadian collegiate ranks and they were rewarded with a Coach-of-the-Year performance as Marshall led the Tabbies to a 9-8-1 record. Unfortunately, last year didn’t go as well as the Tiger-Cats fumbled their way to a 5-13-0 record. And this year wasn’t looking much better as the boys from Hamilton were staring up at a goose egg in the win column after four games.

There are few better representative of the Canadian game than Greg Marshall. The boy from Guelph enjoyed a stellar career with Western, winning the Hec Creighton trophy in 1980 as the league’s outstanding player. Marshall graduated to the Edmonton Eskimos, earning a Grey Cup as a player, before returning to the Forest City and joining the Mustangs’ coaching ranks. There he won a pair of Vanier Cups before leaving for McMaster and padding his resume with four consecutive Yates Cup championships, representing Ontario collegiate supremacy, before becoming the first coach to make the jump directly from the Canadian university ranks to a CFL head coaching gig.

But that dream rapidly turned into a nightmare. Poor personnel decisions play a part, but the fact of the matter is that Marshall, despite his early promise, wasn’t able to get things done. And now he finds himself unemployed – although presumably not for long – and Canadian coaching prospects find themselves at a crossroads in the wake of Marshall’s dismissal.

The pervasive view is that Canadian coaching staffs are inferior to those south of the border. While Canadian players are welcomed along the offensive and defensive lines in the CFL, the ranks of skill position players are dominated by American imports. Essentially, Canadians are second-class citizens in their own game.

Marshall had a chance to change that perception as coach of the Tiger-Cats. As a home-grown talent, Marshall had the opportunity to open the doors a crack for future coaching prospects in the CIS. Had he succeeded in his two-plus years patrolling the sidelines, then more attention would be paid to those pacing the sidelines in the Canadian collegiate ranks.

After all, there’s no reason that Canadian coaches can’t make the grade. The sidelines are the ideal leveling field, as physicality isn’t the key ingredient for success – intelligence, strategy, and creativity are. Nationality doesn’t define one’s intellect, so Canadian coaches should have a chance.

The only thing holding Canadians back from penetrating the coaching ranks is credibility. Many of the CFL’s players have come from Division 1-A schools, coached by legends in the football universe, and they may not react well to coming north of the border and being coached by some Canuck. Like it or not, football is largely an American-driven game, and respect for Canadians must be earned – it’s not given as it is for a U.S.-born coach.

That’s Marshall’s true test: to show that a Canadian can make it on the biggest stage that our national league has to offer; to prove that a local product can command the respect and passion of a team and direct it to the playoffs. But to do that he needs another chance. Although he’s been kicked to the curb by one squad, to open doors for others to follow through, Marshall has to get back up and start knocking.

The one advantage that Marshall has is that the CFL, like most professional sporting leagues, is one based on recycling. Rather than give an unproven young buck a chance, most owners and General Managers are content to believe that somebody else’s problem can be their salvation – after all, recent Canadian citizen Don Matthews has been with six CFL squads and only is the CFL’s all-time regular season win leader.

It’s unfair to expect one person to shoulder the burden for an entire Canadian coaching industry, but Marshall’s shown that, as a player and a coach, he’s been able to successfully carry the ball for his franchise. And there’s no reason to expect he won’t do so again – as long as he gets a chance.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

CFL Cheapens Its Image with NFL Outcasts

By Jason Menard

It’s ironic that during this time when the Canadian dollar is so strongly valued against its American counterpart, our football league has never appeared cheaper than it does today.

The Canadian Football League, thanks to just two players who have yet to play a snap in the three-down game, have gone from being a viable league unto its own to becoming the laughing stock of the pigskin world – a last bastion for the National Football League’s castoffs.

South of the border, Lady Liberty proclaims “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” But perhaps the misguided few in the CFL should paraphrase that slogan into a new advertising campaign.

Think of it, the Radically Canadian promotion is close to running its course, so why not try, “Give us your suspended, your exiled, your cheaters yearning to prove they’re above the law. The wretched refuse of your roster – as long as they have some marketability left.”

With the Whizzinator himself, Onterrio Smith, suiting up – or, at least, riding the pines nursing an injury – in Winnipeg, and Ricky Williams looking to join the Argonauts despite a penchant for puffing and passing polluted pee, the CFL has been downgraded to nothing more than a novelty act. And that’s a shame for the hundreds of hard-working, dedicated athletes who have represented themselves appropriately and integrated themselves into our communities.

For the next year, at least, the CFL will only be referenced south of the border in highlights featuring these two drug cheats. Their time in purgatory will become fodder for the talking heads on the nightly sportscasts. The toil of their teammates will be little more than ambient noise from which these miscreants exploits can jump out! Of course, at least the league will be mentioned south of the border more than once a year as a throwaway item during the Grey Cup.

But is any publicity really good publicity? Will the presence of these two running backs truly bring needed attention to the league? Or will it just be another way for these two players to earn even more attention in the national spotlight while their teams toil in anonymity. Does anyone really believe that people are going to look at the Blue Bombers or Argonauts as anything more than opportunistic jokes?

And that’s not all. The Montreal Alouettes have their own history of hiring thugs. Quarterback Quincy Carter is out of the NFL, allegedly due to concerns about potential drug-related suspensions. And this is also the team that gave upstanding citizen Lawrence Phillips another chance to rehabilitate his career. Of course, this is the same guy who helped his girlfriend down the stairs by dragging her down them by her hair, but that’s OK for the CFL.

Really, aren’t we better than this? Is the lure of potential so great that winning supersedes character? Of course, we know it does in the realm of professional sports. But while a league like the NFL, NBA, or even the NHL can afford to give thugs a second chance, a league like the CFL – desperately searching for an identity and credibility – can’t afford to be linked with these miscreants.

The biggest problem is that these are high-profile players, not simply special-teamers who can be buried on the roster. Smith, Williams, Carter, and even Phillips were marquee talents at one time who were brought in to dominate, not just contribute. In the minds of the league’s owners and general managers these players’ perceived value on the gridiron exceeds the cost to their reputation.

But what happens next year? If Smith and Williams are reinstated, what legacy do they leave behind in Canada? Will it be the rich football traditions present in Winnipeg and Toronto that Americans think about the next time they cast their minds to our league? Or will their names only illicit chuckles as the bush-league suckers who grabbed any attention they could, regardless of the cost?

The CFL obviously desperately craves acceptance as a big league of its own. The problem is that you’re tainted by the company you keep. And when high-profile players with questionable pasts become the face of your league, don’t be surprised when you’re not only looked upon as a joke, but some of those long-time supporters walk away because the league they love is no longer.

Is that really a cost the CFL is willing to pay?

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Ottawa’s Irreconcilable Differences

By Jason Menard

Just when you thought it was safe to be a CFL fan. Where’s Paul McCartney and Brigitte Bardot when you need them? After all, each time a Canadian feels it’s safe to poke their head out and be proud of our national league, someone comes along and Gliebermans the fan.

It’s truly cruel and unusual punishment – especially for those long-suffering folk in our nation’s capital and it must stop.

Whether it’s the Roughriders or the Renegades, Ottawa fans have now twice faced a divorce from their beloved team. Sure, the first marriage lasted a heck of a long time, until 1996, which made the hurt all the more painful. And then, just when the old fans were feeling comfortable about expressing their love for the new arrival, they get left at the altar 10 years later.

And the league thinks the fans are going to welcome the team back after one year off?

Take one year, take 10 years, take however long you want. If once bitten, twice shy is the old adage, what’s the formula when you’ve had two chunks taken out of you? Oh yeah, it starts fool me once…

The league has to be insane if they think that the fans are just going to walk back into Frank Clair Stadium and pick up where they left off. There’s too much mistrust to get personally involved.

Look at the example set by the Montreal Alouettes. Despite a team that was consistently able to beat the bushes and find superlative talent, Montrealers refused to support the team in any substantive way and ended up losing Nos Amours to Washington. However, it wasn’t for a lack of passion in baseball or a lack of enjoyment of the spectacle – opening day crowds can attest to that. It’s just that fans were tired of being told that their team was going to leave.

The situation denigrated into a constant cacophony of how terrible the stadium was, how the team couldn’t compete in the fiscal environment, and how the players were just going to end up leaving anyway. Montreal’s own Gleibermanesque Jeff Loria promised the moon – a downtown stadium on land whose lease he allowed to lapse – before delivering the knockout blow and putting Montreal baseball to sleep for good.

While sports is a business, there’s so much more to it than just that. To run a successful sports franchise you need not only savvy business and personnel people in place, you need a fan base that feels attached to the team, feels a sense of ownership and pride in the organization, and feels invested in the product on the field. It’s hard to get the fans to stand firm when you keep pulling the rug out from under their feet.

Look at how Montreal has rebounded since the return of the Alouettes. When the Concorde left, the thought was that football was gone from that town for good. But with the failed American expansion behind them and the absorption of the former Baltimore franchise, Montreal’s CFL brass made all the right moves. They embraced the history of the team by reverting to the Alouettes name, instead of choosing the failed Concordes moniker or an all-new title. They moved to the cozy confines of McGill’s football stadium to turn a night at the football game into an event. And they encouraged their players to go out into the community and be a part of life in the city.

The Renegades? They should have Horned Mr. Chen and obtained the rights to the Roughriders title. And the last thing they should have done is shelved the team for the year.

The league’s commitment to finding solid, long-term local ownership is admirable. However, the decision to suspend operations and disperse the players through the league (and the unemployment line) is short-sighted at best. Like Toronto and Hamilton in the recent past, the league should have ponied up the dough to maintain operations.

Who’s to say that after a year off, the fans are going to want to come back? What will they be coming back to? Nothing more than an expansion team with new, poorer-quality players, and an immediate future that looks bleak. Why are they going to invest their time, money, and – most importantly – passion in a situation that’s proven to be folly in the past?

Like in any marriage, it’s easier to work things out together than to come back after a separation. Unfortunately for the Ottawa fans, this marriage appears to be going down the road to divorce because of irreconcilable differences.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved