The CFL needs to stop trying to be NFL-lite. Here's how it can do it
With its comparably small but growing audience, the CFL can take chances where other traditional leagues can't
Update: This column was written prior to the Ottawa Redblack's 39-33 overtime victory over the Calgary Stampeders. To read more about the game, click here.
Ah, the CFL. There's a lot to like: the sizzle of wild fans in cold places; the bandbox fields; the rouge; the watermelons gouged out and curved to fit on moistened heads.
But there's also a lot to dislike: the mediocre talent gap vs the NFL; the failure to build a sustaining team in Toronto; the east/west playoff mess; and the concentrated television exposure that sees the league crowded on one cable channel.
But against a changing sporting landscape, the CFL counts itself lucky that its flag — however weathered and barely flowing — is still planted on the hillock. Since it's unlikely to go away, the question now becomes whether or not the CFL can become more than it is, and whether capturing the attention of new fans is still within its reach.
Slighter version of the NFL
There was a time when the CFL's identity was defined by how different it was from the NFL, but this isn't the case any more. With African-American quarterbacks having, finally, found a place in U.S. professional football, and with the NFL's aerial attack mirroring the Canadian game from the 1980s, the CFL has become a slighter version of the sport played by its southern cousins, right down to how it is presented and broadcast.
In this Sunday's Grey Cup, there will be military pageantry, national anthem fly-overs, enormous flags draped across the field and announcers describing the gridiron heroics of either the Calgary Stampeders or the Ottawa Redblacks over a frozen field. Supporters like to boast of the league's cultural distinction, but these are all very American devices.
Sunday's game will be sold-out, if barely. At the time of writing, there were massive blocks of tickets still available in a city — Canada's largest — even though television ratings are actually up this year.
Nevertheless, If the CFL hopes to continue to grow its audience, there need to be changes, and with society becoming more divided, it has to decide on what side of the line it stands.
In light of frustrations experienced by African-American athletes in the NFL, the CFL could become more progressive, putting an end to the national anthems, and making the league more inclusive for all athletes. An enlightened league would throw their support behind the Black Lives Matter movement with a consideration to what national anthems represent in our times, particularly with so many new Canadians having arrived from war-torn countries.
The CFL might also appeal to fans disaffected by the game by refusing to mimic the camouflaged pageantry of the NFL, ending their routine of exclusively honouring the military, and instead bringing in nurses, doctors, firefighters, police officers, social workers and others who likewise give to society.
There's also the issue of the Edmonton "Eskimos," a racist team name that lingers as our country tries to come to terms with how residential schools gouged away identity and nearly destroyed generations of indigenous people. Get rid of the name, already, and let's move on.
Imagine what the CFL would be if it were a forward-looking sporting entity, rather than one locked in a lookalike status (the league has chosen the Colorado Springs' band OneRepublic for its half-time entertainment — a particularly awful decision considering that Canadian music has never been more dynamic). Indeed, the league's most important weekend of the year should be a showcase for change, and to its credit, there are small glimmers of it — a LGBT event during Grey Cup festivities, for example — proving that someone in the league executive has a view to inclusivity. I suggest they push deeper into that frontier.
With its comparably small but growing audience, the CFL can take chances where other traditional leagues cannot. But unless they open up to new fans with new ideas about the world, they'll be left to play war games to the same three guys pouring rye into their coffee.
The watermelons were charming the first time, and a few times after that. In the end, though, they're just fans with fruit on their heads watching a game that refuses to express itself.