Around the world, fans of gridiron football welcomed the start of the National Football League’s new campaign. Meanwhile, a plucky nine-team professional football league north of the US-Canadian border hit its mid-season mark with practically no global notice. This may soon change, at least if the new commissioner gets his way. The Canadian Football League’s attempt to attract new fans outside the country’s borders raises an important question in the age of global sport: can a small domestic league make it in the big, wide world? 

(Nazmus Syed/Flickr)

(Nazmus Syed/Flickr)

 

The identity and existence of the Canadian Football League rely heavily on a rich, if quirky, history and the particularities of the league’s Canadian context. Compared to the NFL, the CFL has significantly fewer teams, significantly fewer fans, and significantly less money (realities that happen to reflect the way Canadians often understand their cultural and economic situation relative to that of the United States). Indeed, the long history of the CFL has been rife with financial struggles, failed franchises, and an embarrassingly botched international expansion. To outsiders, the league’s survival defies explanation.

The CFL has the adoration of a small but gritty contingent of die-hard fans. The league also appeals to a rather nebulous sense of Canadian nationalism and identity. Canadians have often been hyper-sensitive to cultural and economic encroachment from the United States, and in typical Canadian fashion CFL rosters employ protectionism to ensure Canadian-content rules are observed. Furthermore, the CFL substitutes the overstated glitz of the NFL’s Super Bowl with folksy pageantry that might draw snickers from those unacquainted with its locally-based traditions.

In keeping with its on-field protectionist policies, the CFL was overseen by Canadians for the entirety of its first 102 years. This changed, however, in March 2015 when the Board of Governors broke with tradition and hired an American, Jeffrey Orridge, to be the league’s commissioner. Orridge’s resume includes a number of marketing positions with a definite emphasis on global development and bolstered digital presence. When questioned about his unique position as an American at the helm of a Canadian professional sports league, Orridge quickly identified his global outlook as an advantage.

Orridge has accomplished a great deal during his brief tenure as commissioner.  He promptly extended the league’s existing television contract with the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, ESPN, and signed a new contract with BT Sports in the United Kingdom. He also announced a social media-friendly logo and ad campaign, and live-streamed the CFL championship game, the Grey Cup, worldwide on YouTube. Reaching fewer than 10,000 views, this attempt to expand the league’s audience was hardly a viral hit, but the fact that the YouTube stream wasn’t available in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom where broadcast deals were in place makes this number more digestible. All these actions have been aimed to increase the league’s global and social media presence, and are indicative of the kind of changes Orridge was likely hired to enact.

Orridge’s ambitions to global relevance are visionary, but also risky. Considering the new commissioner’s perspective and early moves, it is logical to assume the CFL may consider renewing its failed international expansion efforts of decades past. Born out of financial necessity, injured by rushed and questionable business deals, and extinguished by vacant seats and owners’ rising debts, the league’s past attempts to expand outside Canada are important to understanding the CFL’s current global ambitions.

At the brink of bankruptcy during the mid-1990s, when the community-owned Hamilton Tiger-Cats were already $1.6 million dollars in debt (big money in the CFL context), the league hastily made plans to introduce two expansion franchises in the United States, one in San Antonio and the other in Sacramento. Each new team paid a $3 million Canadian expansion fee, and it was believed this revenue boost would ease the pressures of the league’s mounting debts. The proposed San Antonio franchise, however, backed out at the last minute, leaving the league with a single American franchise in 1993 and more than a little egg on its face.

Pressured by the Sacramento ownership, the CFL introduced three more American teams the following season and another two in 1995. These American franchises saw little success on the field or off, with poor records and abysmal attendance. The sole exception were the Baltimore Stallions, a team which proved to be the model expansion franchise, posting above-average attendance figures, earning a Grey Cup berth in each of its two seasons of operation, and capturing the coveted trophy in 1995. At the conclusion of the 1995 season, however, the mismanaged NFL Cleveland Browns announced their relocation to Baltimore and rendered the Stallions obsolete. The team sought refuge north of the border in Montreal as the reincarnated Alouettes, and have been a successful CFL franchise ever since.

Compared to the state of the league in the mid-1990s, the CFL of today is in excellent financial shape. And it would seem that the league has learned from its hasty expansion failures of the past. The CFL’s latest expansion effort, which revived football in Ottawa, involved a meticulous series of negotiations and a well-budgeted stadium renewal project. The new team, the Ottawa Redblacks, played its first down of football in 2014, four years after the expansion process began. If the CFL sticks to this model, it appears that any future international expansion efforts won’t be carried out as recklessly as they were in the past.

In an increasingly globalized world, expansion beyond the borders of Canada seems logical. But with the painful past still fresh in the minds of Canadian fans – the CFL base – any plans will need to be measured and carefully considered. It is clear, however, that Orridge cannot depend upon the introspective strategy of previous commissioners who stumped Canadiana to a captive audience with limited access to global sports. Technology has cleared the path for Canadians to consume athletic offerings from around the world and has crowded the Canadian sports fan’s calendar. In turn, technology represents an opportunity for the CFL to maximize its global exposure, and – at least for now – the CFL’s approach has been to draw in the eyes of the world rather than to plant new franchises abroad.

In a particularly telling comment, Orridge told the Toronto Star that a sports league “can be intimate and globally recognized at the same time.” Whether such intimacy entails sticking with Canadian franchises or expanding beyond Canada’s borders remains to be seen. But if the CFL’s internationalization efforts prove to be successful, they could become the blueprint for other small leagues who find themselves similarly conflicted between their national roots and the prospect of a global future.

 

Craig Greenham is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Windsor. His research focuses on North American professional sport and his writing appears in such publications as the International Journal of the History of Sport and Sport History Review.

Ben Andrews is a student in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Windsor and is part of the university’s prestigious Outstanding Scholar Program.