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Column: CFL is charting a path towards extinction

A column on CFL, it's past, present and potential future.
Football Getty
The CFL is facing another difficult situation.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if the CFL has been intent on charting a path towards its own demise. 

I’m old enough to remember the struggles of our league in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, when each season opened with questions as to whether this would be the last. Not only did the CFL survive, but for most of the next 20 years, starting in about 1998, the league had some of its most prosperous seasons. 

Ten years ago, when the 100th Grey Cup was played in Toronto, nobody was wondering how much longer the CFL would last.

But the combination of an aging fan base, dwindling attendance and ratings, a product that isn’t as entertaining as it once was, and the lost season due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in doubts about the league’s future being raised again. 

It was to the point in which there was speculation that the league was considering a merger with the re-resurrected XFL, which would have meant certain death for the CFL. The only benefit for the CFL would have brought the social media following of XFL co-owner and celebrity Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, who was a CFL cast-off in the mid-1990s. 

Last year the on-field product for the CFL bottomed out. The wildly entertaining game I knew for the better part of 30 years was gone. People talked about the entertainment of last year’s Grey Cup, but it was marred by turnovers. The game itself ended on an interception. 

Last year the league’s focus should have been on playing the most entertaining brand of football possible. After the lost season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CFL needed to capture the fans’ imagination once again. Instead, on too many nights, our imaginations drifted to what once was.

How many games had at least 60 points and were decided by less than a touchdown? Few. These games used to be the hallmark of the CFL.  

The CFL needed a team like the 1991 B.C. Lions. The average point total for the two teams in Lions’ games in 1991 was nearly 70. B.C. was 11-7 that year. And they often played in front of more than 40,000 fans per game.

The CFL’s latest effort to shoot itself in the foot came with the short strike that mercifully ended last week. The work stoppage only lasted a few days, but after losing a season in 2020, and after the shortened season in 2021, fans had to be wondering if these guys wanted to alienate the remaining fan base.

The strike is over, camps have started up and we’ll get an 18-game season that will end with the Grey Cup in Regina. 

But it was another reason for fans to wonder why they should care about the league.

When people asked me in the past why I favoured the CFL over the NFL, I cited a few reasons. The NFL had the better players, but the CFL had the better, more entertaining game. Until about 10-15 years ago, the NFL would often struggle to hit 40 points per game. The CFL would be around 50-55 points a night, the games were thrilling to watch, they were wildly unpredictable, it wasn’t bogged down by a 40-second play clock, and you had special teams excitement the NFL couldn’t match. 

The CFL is also our game. It’s a league with Canadian-born talent that gives good, home-grown players a chance to play and showcase their skills on a much larger stage. It’s still the No. 2 football league on the planet. (Note: when I say football, I’m not counting soccer). 

It’s a league that has given Canadians across the country so many great memories. 

But the league has become predictable. Teams are so focused on these short passes. The big field, which created so much offence for so long, is not being used properly. It has become like watching hockey on the big international ice surface: there is a lot of unused space out there.

Let the quarterbacks run again. Get the running game back involved. Bring back the long pass. Enough with the cookie-cutter play calling.  

And keep the league our game. With our rules. And our players. The CFL needs more Canadian talent, not less. 

It has more work to do to get the young fans interested again, especially in the larger markets. 

But the league needs to be fun again. And it needs to remain ours.