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.
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