How To Fix The CFL In Progressistan
Toronto made a significant contribution to Canadian football during this year’s stirring Grey Cup Festival. Okay, it was the only contribution southern Ontarians made this year to the Grey Cup (beside the acres of empty seats that were papered over for Sunday’s game).
In an annual ritual, the scribes representing the perfect duchy of Progressistan made the observation that the Grey Cup game is always a hell of a contest, and maybe this time it will rub off on the about-to-be-toll-paying denizens of the 416/ 905. There was a lot to like about Ottawa’s outrageous upset of the over-confident Stampeders of Calgary, not the least of which a late rush by Calgary to force OT and the RedBlacks response.
This time it’s gotta’ work, right?
Fat chance. Canadian football in general and the CFL in particular are as popular in Toronto as scrofula at the moment. With the ascendant Maple Leafs, the ballin’ Raptors, the Blue Jays and even Toronto FC, their sports plates are full to groaning. The CFL and the Grey Cup are the after-dinner mint in this banquet of sports dishes for consumers in Toronto.
Which is bad news for a league that needs a local presence in Muddy York where media and its influencers reside. The Argonauts this year received what was thought to be a reprieve when they were shoehorned into BMO Field, the cozy home of Toronto FC. With fewer seats to sell, better sight lines and an outdoor setting, it was assumed that locals would re-capture the spirit that made the Boatmen the toast of the city in the 1970s and 80s.
Nice try. The Argos were four shades of awful, the reno seats of BMO Field stayed conspicuously empty all year and everyone agreed, “Let’s not do this again.” Then, to compound the folly, the organizers of the Grey Cup Game— a multi-million dollar windfall to the city that hosts the game— screwed up the whole thing royally. Tickets were first over-priced, then cheaper than dirt.
In the end, if you wanted to go to the game, you got in for free. Which was a great for the sponsors and fans who had actually ponied up some money for their ducats. If not for the lifetime loonies who brought the party to Toronto, citizens could have easily missed that there was a big game in the city.
It was even worse for Saturday’s excellent Vanier Cup— the crown jewel of university football— that was played before friends and family at Tim Horton Field in Hamilton. Usually they cancel a performance if there are fewer people in the stands than on the stage. But Laval and Calgary ignored that chestnut to deliver a great finish all thew same.
While university football is still played in many schools across the country, young fans are few on the ground. The Argos— and the CFL in general— are suffering from a distinct lack of enthusiasm among the next generation. Outside of Saskatchewan, millenials see the CFL as a bad video game played on VHS in Grandad’s cupboard. Hoops is hip.
There are reasons for hope beyond the fanatical support the CFL has in Sasky. Were it not for TSN underwriting the entire league with their ultra-generous TV deal, the league might be in big trouble. But so long as rival Sportsnet has the Blue Jays as summer programming, TSN has to keep its hand in for the foreseeable future with three-down football.
And should they need encouragement, they should look the Blue Jays. A decade ago, the baseball team was about as popular as sensible shoes with the younger demographic. When Jerry Howarth (get well Jerry!) is the hippest thing you’ve got going, then you only need the G to spell boring. But the Jays, god bless their hearts, saw how other baseball parks wereturning sections of their park into a hook-up zone for slightly inebriated suburban kids.
So they whacked the stodgy restaurant in centre field, created an open-air bar, focussed their TV cameras on the hard bodies hooking up, and voila… the baseball game became the place to meet for a few $15 beers and some dreamy eyed girls. When that seemed to catch on, they added the open areas of concrete just outside the stadium, hooked up huge TV screens and turned the cameras on the action.
Combined with the Jays’ playoff pushes, baseball became a place to be for millenials and other snowflakes. Baseball? Okay, they might watch the game between pickup lines— but then only to find out when the cameras are live and they can be seen by their pals at home. Still, MLB is a hot ticket, and the CFL in Toronto is a place to go to get some peace-and-quiet.
So go boozy or go home. This sop to the attention-deficit crowd will be heresy to traditional CFL fans. But right now, what have you got to lose, commissioner Jeffrey Orridge?
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy. Bruce is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald and the Globe & Mail.