Lions and Tiger-Cats and Gliebermans! Oh, my!

By Jason Menard

As the Canadian Football League looks to steer itself into the future, rumours abound that they may be doing so with a new person behind the wheel. And, just like always, the CFL finds itself at a crossroads.

So who should be behind the wheel as driving force behind Canadian pigskin? May I offer my services? I’d work [relatively] cheap (important for a league that likes to pinch its pennies for anything other than player contracts) and I know the game – and we’ve seen what happens to leagues where the commissioner isn’t a fan, right Mr. Bettman?

Maybe it’s the fact that there are more men on the field, or the balls are bigger (wait, did I say that out loud – this is turning into an entirely different column), but I love the Canadian game. Admittedly, the talent level isn’t as strong as the NFL, but there is much to be said for the excitement that three-down football brings to the table.

Over the past few seasons, the CFL has found itself on an upswing all across the country. Toronto and Hamilton — historically strong markets that have seen lean years recently – are now enjoying resurgent fan interest backed by solid leadership. The Montreal Alouettes, resurrected from the dead, are a model on how to integrate the team to the community, and play to packed houses in one of the most dynamic stadiums in the league. And Western support, save for B.C., continues to be the foundation upon which the league is built.

Yet, that foundation is starting to show some cracks. And, while not yet in dire straights, there are some troubling signs that the league could start slipping back into the malaise that plagued it in the late 80s and 1990s.

It seems that when the CFL begins to taste a little bit of success, they lose their grip on reality and start slipping into the abyss. Another resurrected franchise, the Ottawa Renegades, is in ownership turmoil – on the verge of bringing back the, uhm, eclectic Glieberman clan to the helm. The salary cap is riddled with holes, and spiraling salaries are harkening memories of the Raghib Ismail personal-service contract days.

So how do we fix a game that’s not broken, but is slowly steering its way towards a brick wall? Here are five easy steps.

1. Install and enforce a salary cap with bite: OK, right there, I’ve excluded myself from consideration for the post, because there’s no way that the CFL owners will hire someone who will curb their free-spending ways. The issue, however, is the same that plagued the league in the 80s and 90s.

The CFL can’t compete with the big boys on a financial level, and by trying only exacerbates the tenuous financial situation these teams are in. We are not the NFL, so we can’t play on the same level. However, we are an exciting game, rich in history, and offer an attractive destination for those players who may be too small, a millisecond too slow, or overlooked in their NFL pursuits.

The league needs to cut back on the ancillary revenue that these teams can offer. Under-the-table deals for off-season work, radio shows, or other forms of compensation exist. Either ban them, or declare it as a benefit of playing for that team, and let teams use it as a recruiting tool (much like New York and L.A.-based teams try to sell their stars on the advertising potential of their towns). Whichever way the owners decide, it should be above the table.

And if you exceed the salary cap? The league needs to come down hard with penalties that have bite. Having quality Canadian content is key in the CFL, so abusers of the cap should be subject to losing a pick in the Canadian college draft. Or maybe they lose their designated import position for a period of time. Both ideas will give pause to those considering ways to circumvent the rules.

2. Expand: Oh, but didn’t we learn anything from the failed American expansion? Well, yes – that’s don’t expand into the States. However, there are two markets just ripe for the exploiting: Quebec City and the East Coast.

It’s a little hard to refer to the CFL as a Canadian league when the furthest east it reaches is 475 Pine Ave. W. in Montreal. To be a truly national league, it needs to have representation all the way to the Atlantic provinces. On top of that, Quebec and the Maritimes are football-mad locations that would support franchises long into the future.

Quebec is a hot-bed for junior-aged football and a second team would be able to tap into that ravenous market. And the support the Atlantic provinces give to their university programs is unparalleled. Location has always been an issue, but Halifax and Moncton could be considered worthy candidates to host a team. And, following the lead of the Green Riders, they could represent either their province or region, as opposed to identifying themselves with one city.

There have been whispers that cities like London and Mississauga, Ontario could be considered in the future, but the sustainable market just doesn’t seem to be there. If London could draw the Windsor-Kitchener traffic, it could make a go of it, while Mississauga would potentially cannibalize the Toronto/Hamilton fan bases. Either way, there are more attractive options to explore east of Montreal.

3. Embrace the history: The CFL has a rich and glorious past that should be exploited. And, as many of our legends are home-grown, they should be featured prominently in any advertising campaigns and game-time ceremonies. What many other professional leagues do well is that they make their retired greats ambassadors for the team and the game. One may well ask, what happens to a retired CFLer?

And on that note, enough with this Renegades thing. Go track down Horn Chen and pry the Rough Riders name from his greedy little hands! Two teams with similar names in a nine-team league was part of the CFL’s caché – let’s bring it back.

4. Engage the community: A great deal of Montreal’s success since the corpse of the Concorde/Alouettes was exhumed has been a direct result of the management’s dedication to building strong community relations. The same can also be said for the Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg franchises, in that their fans embrace the team as an integral part of the community – not an afterthought as is the case in places like Vancouver and Toronto. More aggressive inclusionary tactics would help teams develop relevance in their communities, which translates into butts in the seats.

5. Support the game at a grass-roots level: Part of the NFL’s appeal stems from the fact that so many fans are also fans of the college game. They watch their favourites ply their trade in the NCAA, then make the natural progression into the NFL. By developing tighter relationships –in player development, marketing, and sponsorship – the CFL could go a long way in propping up the CIS. It’s not a quick fix and could take years to develop, but the reward in terms of fan acquisition and player development would be well worth it.

No matter who they hire, the CFL can’t afford to punt this opportunity away – not when a successful trip to the end zone is in sight!

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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