Expansion End Zone Lies East

By Jason Menard

While the Village People may have implored us to Go West, when it comes to CFL action the sun – and the setting – rises in the East.

In light of Tom Wright’s recent meeting with Windsor mayor Eddie Francis regarding the possibility of the border city becoming the 10 th Canadian Football League franchise, and the fact that the league seems to be enjoying resurgent popularity, naturally discussion will arise about expansion. This, along with Wright’s professed desire to see a 10 th franchise in place by the end of the decade to balance the notoriously complicated schedule, shows that the time is now for interested cities to make their move.

Unfortunately for Windsorites, their city isn’t the best choice — in fact, it’s only the third-best option in their province. And the best two choices reside farther east than Ontario. And when it comes to making a decision with both one’s heart and one’s head, Halifax emerges as the clear front-runner.

There are a number of factors that the league must consider when choosing an appropriate venue for expansion. Once bitten, twice shy doesn’t apply here – the league was devoured by the experience that was then-commissioner Larry Smith’s foray south of the border in 1993-1995. Fortunately for the league, they have a surplus of worthy locations from which to choose.

Halifax makes sense on a number of fronts. Insiders have long whispered their desire to see a franchise based in Nova Scotia to take advantage of an untapped market and to fulfill the league’s wish to be a truly Canadian entity. Geographically, the team will also help balance out the divisions without requiring realignment or disturbing traditional rivalries.

The biggest problem – and this is the same for all potential locations – is the lack of a suitable stadium. While the region has long supported university pigskin, there is no location currently capable of meeting the needs of a CFL franchise long-term. Local ownership would either have to build a stadium or enter into a Montreal Alouette/McGill-like agreement to upgrade St. Mary’s facility.

And while Halifax falls behind other expansion candidates such as Quebec City and London in terms of population, the team would absolutely have to be marketed as a regional representative – akin to Regina’s Roughriders adopting the Saskatchewan moniker. A team under the Atlantic brand would be embraced by all the Eastern provinces.

Failing that, the league should turn its attention to Quebec City. Canada’s seventh-largest metropolitan area, the capital of la belle province boasts a potential market of almost 700,000. As well, amateur and collegiate football enjoys a passionate support that markets Ontario-west could only dream of. One only has to turn to the support that Laval receives in the CIS to see that the market is starved. And, despite the loss of the NHL’s Nordiques, the region has proven that it will support professional sports. Add to that the built-in rivalry with the Alouettes and you have a recipe for long-term success.

While Windsor is getting the press, two other Ontario markets are more deserving – London (10 th largest) and Kitchener/Waterloo (11 th), with the Forest City coming out in front. London, with its metropolitan population of 416,000 sits in the middle of southwestern Ontario. Within a comfortable two-hour drive, the team could pull fans from Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, and Toronto. Again, facilities come into play at this location, but the recently built TD Waterhouse Stadium should be able to be upgraded to meet the needs of the team – of course, with the participation of the University of Western Ontario.

And finally, the blossoming Kitchener/Waterloo region is also an alternative, offering a short drive from Toronto, London, and Hamilton, and a blossoming economy. Both London and the K/W region would create intense regional rivalries with the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and, again, create balance in the divisions without disturbing existing arrangements.

Financially, some of the risk has been alleviated with the league’s recent acceptance of a hard salary cap. With the ever-popular buzz-word cost certainty established, it allows the league to be a little more risky with its expansion choice. By enabling the decision to be partially emotionally based, as opposed to strictly financially motivated, Wright has the opportunity not just to make the safe field goal attempt – he can be bold and score a game-winning touchdown.

The clear choice is Halifax. Wright’s legacy can be one of creating a league that pans the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And, finally, we will have a league that truly deserves to bear the designation Canadian.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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