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.
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