What Would Happen If the CFL Failed?

Tobi WritesAnalyst INovember 4, 2009

TORONTO - NOVEMBER 25:  Anthony Malbrough #3 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers knocks away a pass in the endzone  from D.J. Flick #3 of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders during the third quarter in the 95th Grey Cup on November 25, 2007 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  The Rough Riders won 23-19.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

I was studying the correlation between poorly attended Canadian Interuniversity Sports sponsored football games and Canadian Football League teams and getting annoyed, as I often do.

Last year, only 11 of the 27 CIS non-scholarship football programs playing the highest level of amateur football in Canada drew reported attendance numbers over 3000 a game.

(Some perspective is needed for American readers accustomed to the US top level of play for scholarship football at highly promoted programs like Texas, Tennessee, and Michigan that draw over 100K per game. Non-scholarship football in any country, including the US,  tends not to be taken seriously by fans and to be an attendance dud.  For non-scholarship, largely unpromoted and unmarketed football played in mostly badly thought out or aging stadiums or fields with bleachers in a cold country given to heavy snowfall,  an average of 3000 is actually pretty reasonable --- all things considered.)

Anyway, of these 11 "healthy" football programs, eight of them were located in cities with no CFL competition.

Of the 16 "unhealthy" programs, 11 were located in CFL "Killzones" --- areas where the CFL dominated the entertainment dollar of football fans.  (Of the remaining five, four universities had enrollments of less than 4000.  Again, something that seemed quite excusable.)

CFL fans frequently tell me that the Plains is a football hotbed.  And yet one would reach a totally opposite conclusion looking at CIS attendance.  The only CIS football program that draws over 3000 per game is The University of Saskatchewan located in Saskatoon.  Not coincidentially it is the only CIS team in a city in the Plains that doesn't have a CFL team.

CFL fans tell me how great it would be if the CFL would just expand into Halifax, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, and most of all Quebec City, because those cities have successful CIS programs.

It really doesn't sit well with me.  The universities in those cities have built some decent programs in a very disfunctional CIS with little guidance, structure, or support.  And now locals are supposed to jump aboard with the idea of ponying up the revenue to build a rich owner a $100 million stadium so that owner can steal the ticket buying fanbase from those local universities?

It just doesn't sit well with me.

I don't like the NFL, but at least they have the decency to find a market, get a stadium built, and then spend their money to train fans to go to that stadium.  They don't just find a popular college football team and take over their stadium like an avian brood parasite.

On days like today, inspite of my affinity to the players and the Canadian game in general and my sympathy to the long suffering fans of the CFL, I hope that league never grows.

Today, in particular, my thoughts went further down that path and I considered what would happen if the CFL's BOG once more ran the league off the road and into the ditch and AAA didn't come to bail them out.

No NFL or Canadian Government bailouts?

First, I'd like to admit that this is very unlikely.

Someone always bails out the CFL.  The CFL is like an armoured cockroach cruising through Vegas with a lucky rabbit's foot and weighted dice.  It's annoying, filthy, and disgusting at times, but it seems to have an unlimited amount of last minute pardons.

The CFL appears to effectively be the NFL's junior partner.  The NFL bailed them out and I have suspicions they would probably do so again.  In return the CFL stays out of the U.S. and let's the NFL do whatever they want in Canada.

This allows the NFL to retain plausible deniability while thwarting U.S. anti-trust laws that could cripple the NFL. "See, the CFL has been competing with us for years!"

When you consider the NFL lost their 1980's lawsuit to the USFL and if not for the business tactics the USFL adopted under the mavericky leadership of Donald Trump, the USFL might have been awarded over a billion dollars of the NFL's money (in 1980's dollars!!), it seems pretty likely that keeping a "competitor" around who doesn't really compete with the NFL is worth a handful of NFL millions every once in a while.

Even if the CFL caught the NFL at a bad time, Canadians love the fact that the CFL is homegrown and historic.  If it ever came down to it, I believe the local governments in CFL cities would champion a movement by the various levels of governement to save the league.

But what if it failed?

The idea really intrigued me.  What would happen?

The Years: 0-3 ACFL

A New League Fails to Rise

An assumption might be that a new league would immediately arise to take its place, but would that happen in reality?

I don't think so.

Consider the fact that the CFL has always had difficulty finding owners to go into cities without established teams and CFL teams generally do not sell quickly without much discussion in the papers over failed attempts to sell.

CFL teams are not hot commodities.  They aren't cash cows and do not seem to remain stable from year to year.  Rich Canadians seem to agree with the average Canadian sports fan that there are slower ways to burn 10-20 million than buying a Canadian pro-football team.

Most Canadians seem to buy into the idea that Canadians don't like football much.

And there are reasons the rich Canadians should not like the CFL.

How many bridges have the CFL owners and the BOG burned to the ground over the last 20 years?  I remember Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis being quoted in the paper a few years back about how he was going to build the CFL a stadium in Windsor.  The CFL gave him the Heisman and left him to field criticism about being green and unrealistic in pursuing the CFL.

Not exactly a step-by-step guide on how to get government officials to champion spending tax payer money to build your league new stadiums.

Or what about the Argos ownership bailing out on the University of Toronto and the University of York at the last minute?

The names change over the years, but the fact that the CFL owners as a whole seem to be jerks appears to be a constant.  When you really get down to it, the CFL BOG appear to be users. The politicians and businessmen who have the money that could make the CFL better see that reality.

CFL fans constantly pine for a rich foreign investor to start a new CFL team and endure the tough years to establish the team ... And then sell to a rich Canadian who isn't so foolish.  Neither leg of that seems to happen.

If owners do not want to buy in to an established league with 100+ years of history, why would they want to buy into a start-up league that would attempt to emulate a defunct CFL?

Recall the problems the CFL has had in Ottawa. Failing CFL owners stiffed a lot of vendors and merchants out there. That played a role in the business community falling out of love with the CFL, which probably played a big role in killing the Ottawa Renegades.

Imagine that in every CFL city.

What owner in his right mind would want to spend money biding time until the businesses got over their hatred of all things pro football? It could be very similar to the fallout you see in the wake of American Basketball Association (ABA) teams who burn up semi-pro basketball credibility in market after market.

You know professional soccer teams would be all over those markets asking the cities to rework those stadiums into smaller capacity MLS stadiums.  I am not a fan of North American soccer, but anyone who looks at the lay of the land can clearly see the unproven MLS has a lot more credibility with the Canadian tax paying public than the CFL does.  The business community would probably forge relationships with those teams rather than with any new startup pro-football league.

Canadians seem unoptimistic about the CFL and Canadian football in general, if not fatalistic.  If the CFL were to actually die, what percentage of CFL fans would actually buy into a new pro-football league team in season one?  What percentage would want to wait a few years to see if the new league would make it before "foolishly" falling in love with pro-football again.

Sure the NFL would probably have exhibition games in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and Vancouver, but the Bills game in Toronto was not a raging success last time.  Additionally, when you figure in travel costs and smaller stadiums with less revenue generating potential, it seems unlikely the NFL would set up shop in Canada.

There are a number of reasons to question whether a new league would arise.

Football takes off

The Years: 4+ ACFL

With no pro football, what would football fans in Canada do?

I think over three to four years they would rediscover their love of University football. 

Broadcasters would immediately look for something to fill the old CFL timeslots. CIS Football would be a cheap and easy option.  As it was given more exposure, fans who tend to attend games would gravitate to attend those CIS games.

With no BC Lions, SFU and UBC would have tremendous gains in game attendance.  UBC might take up playing at BC place or the new soccer stadium.  UVIC and UFV might be inclined to start playing after seeing those school's numbers.

With no Stampeders,  would the Dinos draw huge crowds to McMahon? With no Roughriders, would the Rams half fill Mosaic?

With no league for Aspers's Blue Bombers, the Bisons would be the major tenent in his new stadium. With no CFL threat to eventually force their way in, would Western expand TD Waterhouse?

With no Argonauts might we see a resurgence of The Toronto Blues?  Like Laval today, they used to draw quite healthy crowds back in the day.  The program just lost the public to the CFL.  Would the Blues possibly play at Lamport or could attendence explode again to where they would play in the Rogers Centre?   For that matter would York with their enormous enrollment?

With no Alouettes, would McGill fill Molson? Would UQAM play there or at Saputo?  Would CEPSUM and Concordia Stadium be expanded?

It seems like big gains would be likely in every CFL market and likely small to large gains in every other CIS market.  The failure of the CFL could tip off another golden age of Canadian University football.


While the CFL is not likely to be allowed to fatally shoot itself anytime soon, I think this was an article that needed to be written.

Sometimes it is good to reflect on what a league costs you.  The CFL has quietly robbed Canada of strong Canadian Interuniversity football programs.  The process has become an ingrained part of how the league operates and what Canadians expect. CFL fans have come to believe the CFL cuckolding college markets is a positive process.

Maybe it is time to take a step back and look at things from a different perspective.

All fans of Canadian football should look at what is good for Canada and Canadian football first sometimes and critically evaluate the CFL's actions from that regard, not just assume what is good for the CFL is good for Canadian Football.


    Johnny Manziel Fails to Sign CFL Contract by Deadline

    CFL logo

    Johnny Manziel Fails to Sign CFL Contract by Deadline

    Joseph Zucker
    via Bleacher Report

    Redblacks Beat Stampeders 39-33 to Win Grey Cup

    CFL logo

    Redblacks Beat Stampeders 39-33 to Win Grey Cup

    Rob Goldberg
    via Bleacher Report

    Scouting Best NFL Prospects from CFL and Canada

    CFL logo

    Scouting Best NFL Prospects from CFL and Canada

    Kevin Seifert
    via ESPN.com