How to Make the CFL USA Work This Time and 15 Places Where It Could Thrive
Two decades ago the Canadian Football League began experimenting with teams in the United States. After only three seasons, the experiment fell flat. However, rumors about the CFL expanding to Detroit/Windsor or Upstate New York surface from time to time.
I think that it's time to look at CFL USA again. There's just too much money and too many football aficionados in the United States not to. With the proliferation of sports-only channels courtesy of FOX and Time Warner Cable, getting a TV contract wouldn't be hard.
There are some reasons CFL USA went the way of the dodo, but they can be remedied. The primary reason was the poor placement of the seven franchises, which were located in Baltimore, Birmingham, Las Vegas, Memphis, San Antonio, Sacramento and Shreveport. None of these cities had NFL teams (and only one currently does), largely due to the fact that they were small markets and/or had inadequate facilities.
None of these teams were in markets anywhere close to the Canadian border, nor did they have large Canadian enclaves. Quite the opposite, in fact: Some of the expansion franchises were placed in areas hostile to foreigners of any stripe, let alone Canadians. The CFL had considered more hospitable places such as Columbus, Hartford and Milwaukee, but made the mistake of reneging on those cities.
Add to that, many of the CFL USA teams' front offices didn't know anything about Canadian football, and it's hard to believe CFL USA lasted three minutes, let alone three years.
The first step to success with CFL USA is placing teams in the right cities with the right men in the front office. The other problems with CFL USA could be solved by running it independently of the CFL. Play games on Tuesday and Wednesday to avoid high school and college football, rather than the CFL's standard Thursday-Friday-Saturday slate.
This article operates on the assumption that a CFL-specific venue will never be built in the United States. To be honest, even most current CFL stadiums either have a non-CFL tenant, such as a university sharing the stadium, or were built for a purpose other than the CFL.
While some games could be played in NFL or college football venues, it would probably be a better idea to instead use home grounds closer to the CFL's 20,000-seat minimum, as long as a CFL field can fit. That would allow the use of MLS stadiums on off-days. A CFL field's dimensions are actually closer to an MLS field than an American football field.
BC Place already serves as a combo soccer/CFL stadium; the new Frank Clair Stadium will as well in the future. Besides, 20,000 is 17,000 more than the CFL's Las Vegas Posse drew on average.
Though neither MLS nor American football fields fit CFL dimensions perfectly (a fact that was largely ignored in the first CFL USA expansion), a number of these stadiums could easily be modified to fit the CFL standard. I have included the dimensions in yards of the playing surface of each of the MLS or American football venues that could be possible targets.
And back to picking sites: The CFL was too quick to dismiss large American markets, particularly those with large Canadian populations, mostly because of fears of competition with the NFL. Considering the astronomical price of NFL tickets these days, though, I find it a worthy proposition to go head-to-head in certain large Midwestern or Northeastern markets.
In the following slides are 15 cities I think the CFL should consider if it wants to give expansion in America another go. Included in each slide are potential venues, as well as market size and Canadian-American population. It goes without saying that none of the seven cities CFL USA first tried appear on this list; most are Northeastern and Midwestern cities, but a few are cities with a significant population of Canadian snowbirds.
Demographic data from these slides courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau.
Total population: 964,462
Canadian population: 8,148 (0.84 percent)
Possible venues: Arizona Stadium (51,811, 116x75)
Arizona is home to a sizable Canadian snowbird population: It's the 19th-most Canadian state by percentage and the 16th-most by total 'Nucks. It's more Canadian than Utah, Colorado or Nevada, all states further north. For a number of years, both Phoenix and Tucson boasted Canadian consulates.
For a metro area of nearly a million, Tucson is fairly devoid of sports teams. Aside of the University of Arizona (which uses Arizona Stadium for its football games), Tucson has nothing but a low-level soccer franchise and a triple-A baseball team that is soon to depart for El Paso, Texas. With no MLS team, Tucson lacks a 20,000-seat, soccer-specific facility that could be borrowed by the CFL.
However, I'm not sure that snowbird franchises are the best model; after all, the NHL is hardly basking in the glory of the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers. Since Tucson seems to break all the rules for CFL USA expansion, frankly closely resembling the cities where CFL USA failed, it's number 15 on this list.
Total population: 368,414
Canadian population: 6,163 (1.7 percent)
Possible venues: Unknown
We jump from the warmest city on the list to the coldest. You can grant me the following two things about Anchorage:
1) It's as cold as Canada, while being in the state with the longest Canadian border and being very much a winter-sport city; and
2) it's never, ever, ever going to seriously be considered for any kind of American football franchise.
Obviously, the upside to a CFL team in Anchorage is that it is in a city without any competition but maintains a strong synergy with Canada. However, the fact that Anchorage is a lilliputian market (there are more people in the Tucson metro of last slide than all of Alaska) and the fact that Anchorage doesn't have a viable venue (the University of Alaska-Anchorage doesn't compete in football) drop it to No. 14 on this list. Then again, when the CFL was considering American expansion in the 1990s, they considered putting a team in North Dakota...
Could it build a football stadium eventually? Yes. Alaska certainly has the public funding available to build a stadium, and will probably have to if it ever hosts the Winter Olympics, an event it has bid on a number of times. Will it be a CFL USA contender until it does? Probably not.
13. Washington, D.C.
Total population: 5,416,691
Canadian population: 31,718 (0.59 percent)
Possible venues: RFK Stadium (46,000, 110x72) and various college football venues in Maryland
Lemme make something abundantly clear at this point: When I said that an American city should have both NFL and CFL teams, I didn't mean they should share the same stadium. Really, I didn't even mean they should share the same part of the Metro Area. Yes, the D.C. Metro has an NFL team. It doesn't play within a couple miles of the Capitol Dome anymore; it's now in the comparative boonies of Landover.
With the Redskins and Nationals gone, the only tenants for RFK are the D.C. United and the U.S. national soccer team, for which the stadium is the the unofficial national venue. Even the EagleBank/Military Bowl abandoned the stadium, opting instead for Annapolis' Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Unfortunately, the more like likely option is that RFK is left without a tenant when the United build their own stadium and is torn down a couple years after that. The Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area has a second NFL team besides the Redskins (the Ravens), and not a particularly large Canadian population.
12. Salt Lake City
Canadian population: 6,583 (0.60 percent)
Possible venues: Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,017, 120x70) and Rio Tinto Stadium (20,213, 120x75)
Salt Lake City is one of about a dozen American cities that has no NFL team, but a team in another Big Four sport. It is also one of the fastest-growing metros in the nation and has two venues that could work for the CFL.
However, that is more than balanced by a number of other factors. Even if Ogden and Provo are included, Salt Lake is not one of the 25 biggest media markets in the nation.
Salt Lake is closer to the Canadian border than Tucson, but it is still almost 700 miles from the Canadian border, and nearly 900 miles from the closest CFL franchise. And though Salt Lake is very much a winter city, it's Canadian population is relatively small.
Canadian population: 19,169 (0.91 percent)
Possible venues: Citrus Bowl Stadium (65,438, 120x74)
Florida is the fourth-largest state in the nation, the largest in the Southeast, and is one of two Southeastern states with more than 1 percent Canadians. In all, it has the fourth-most Canadians of any U.S. state (Massachusetts, Michigan, California). Most of these are snowbirds from Central and Eastern Canada.
Florida has four media markets large enough to support a football team. Three of them have NFL teams; Orlando is the fourth. Though it has no NFL team, it does have a 60,000-plus-seat stadium with a field big enough for the CFL or soccer (it hosted soccer matches of the 1994 World Cup and the 1996 Olympics). Since UCF built a new stadium, the only gridiron football played here are postseason contests like the CapitalOne and Russell Athletic Bowls.
The drawback to Orlando is the nature of snowbirds: Floridians are more likely to watch the teams of their childhood on television than go to Marlins Park or the BankAtlantic Center to see a Florida team play. In addition, Orlando is over 1,100 miles away from Canada.
There’s also the drawback of the market being saturated by three NFL and three or four major college football programs, plus the fact that Orlando isn’t a large media market (though it is one of the largest non-NFL markets in the United States) but nonetheless has been a graveyard for non-NFL professional football teams.
10. Los Angeles
Population: 12,723,781 (excludes Inland Empire, an additional ~4,000,000)
Canadian population: 60,490 (0.48 percent)
Possible venues: Rose Bowl (91,136, 120x74), Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (93,607, 120x75) and StubHub Center (27,000, 120x75)
Los Angeles is the second-largest media market in the States, and the biggest by far without the NFL.
Of the 33 metro areas I investigated for this article, though L.A. is one of the farthest from the Canadian border, it has the fifth-largest Canadian population of the metros I looked (Longer ago than I care to admit, two of those Canadian Angelinos would have been my great-grandmother and grandmother).
Both the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum are looking for tenants to finance badly-needed facilities upgrades as they approach their centennials; and L.A.’s large soccer-specific stadium could also be an option.
There are two main concerns about CFL LA. One would be that once LA gets an NFL team again (and that will eventually happen), the CFL team is gone.
The other is a quote from former Lakers and Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke (himself a former Canadian) lamenting the Kings’ low attendance despite the large Canadian expat population: “Now I know why they left Canada. They hate hockey!” Maybe they hate the CFL too.
Canadian population: 11,387 (0.74 percent)
Possible venues: None
In principle, a team in Milwaukee makes pretty good sense. Milwaukee was a finalist for a CFL USA team in the 1990s. It is a metro area of more than a million and a half in a state that borders two Great Lakes, is only an hour away from the northern suburbs of Chicago and has no NFL team.
There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem: Milwaukee doesn’t have a 20,000-plus football or soccer-specific stadium; it’s the largest city or media market in the U.S. in this predicament. In the 1990s, Milwaukee was rolling with the multipurpose County Stadium, now they have the baseball-only Miller Park, which would likely be unsuitable as a CFL USA venue.
Canadian population: 8,160 (0.45 percent)
Possible venues: Ohio Stadium (102,329, 120x75) and Columbus Crew Stadium (20,145, 115x75)
Columbus has been a trendy expansion site of late, as it is one of the few metropolitan areas in the Rustbelt that isn’t hemorrhaging people left and right, and is centrally located to draw from both Cincinnati and Cleveland. It currently has NHL, MLS and MLL franchise; the NLL, Arena Football League and Women’s American Basketball League also gave Columbus a try. It was a finalist for original CFL USA expansion, but ultimately wasn’t chosen.
Columbus hasn’t had an NFL team since 1926, when the NFL was only a few years removed from the Ohio League. But with Ohio State in Columbus, do they really need pro football there? Also worrisome is the fact that Columbus has fewer than 10,000 Canadians.
Canadian population: 40,921 (0.43 percent)
Possible venues: Toyota Park (20,000, 120x75), Solider Field (61,500, 116x70) and Ryan Field (49,256, 120x75)
Yes, Chicago has an NFL team. It’s also the third-largest media market in the United States. Chicago is the largest media market with just one NBA team or just one NHL team. Before Los Angeles lost the Raiders and Rams, Chicago was the largest metro area with just one NFL team as well.
From 1920 to 1959, Chicago had two NFL teams. It’s also worth nothing that the average price at a Bears game next season is a ghastly $111, meaning there are a lot of Chicagoans who want to see live football, but are priced out. If the CFL USA ever places a team in an NFL market, Chicago won’t be the worst place to consider.
6. Portland, Oregon
Canadian population: 26,237 (1.2 percent)
Possible venues: Jeld-Wen Field (20,438, 110x74)
Aside of Southern California, Portland is the largest American metropolitan area without the NFL. It was considered for CFL USA in their 1990s expansion as it is only a few hours’ drive from Vancouver, B.C.
Since then, the park formerly known as Civic Stadium is now carrying the moniker Jeld-Wen Field, not to mention that it is now oriented specifically for football and soccer use. Sure, it’s a lot smaller than an NFL stadium, but it’s about the right size for a CFL venue.
5. New York City
Canadian population: 72,864 (0.39 percent)
Stadiums: Yankee Stadium (54,251), MetLife Stadium (82,566, 120x75), Red Bull Arena (25,189, 120x75), Shuart Stadium (15,000), High Point Solutions Stadium (52,454), Michie Stadium (40,000) and New York FC Stadium (TBD, likely ca. 25,000)
Whenever a new league sets up shop, the first order of business is usually to award a team to New York. This, even when New York already has a team in that sport: witness the New York Nets, the NY/NJ Hitmen, and the New York Golden Blades. Yes, I know New York already has two pro football teams if, by New York, you mean New Jersey.
With a media market of almost 20 million, including the third-largest Canadian-American population by absolute numbers, New York simply cannot be ignored by the CFL USA. With both NFL clubs in Jersey, there may be an opening for the CFL in the Metro-North, on Long Island, or in the city itself.
In particular, I like the chances of the Yankees’ ownership establishing a CFL USA franchise. The Yankees’ ownership is bullish about playing soccer and football games (Pinstripe Bowl, Army-Notre Dame, New York FC until the stadium in Queens is built) in new Yankee Stadium. If not in Yankee Stadium, the new New York City FC Stadium could also be a possibility.
4. Upstate New York
Population: 1,049,836 (For Rochester, an additional 1,137,266 in Buffalo and 658,811 in Syracuse)
Canadian population: 17,961 (1.7 percent)
Stadium: Sahlen’s Stadium (13,768+, 120x75)
Upstate New York, only few hours’ drive from Hamilton and Toronto, has always been in consideration for a CFL franchise should expansion to the USA occur again.
The CFL considered Rochester for a CFL franchise two decades ago, but opted against it. Why? Well, Sahlen’s hadn’t been built yet, and it probably would need to be expanded anyway if the CFL comes. And Upstate New York isn’t a particularly large media market, unless you add in Buffalo, which means contending with the Bills.
Population: 4,489,250 (excludes Manchester, 399,555 and Providence, 1,602,822)
Canadian population: 207,549 (4.6 percent)
Stadium: Harvard Stadium (30,323), Alumni Stadium (44,500), Gillette Stadium (68,756, 115x75) and Revolution’s New Stadium (TBD)
It goes without saying that Boston has the New England Patriots to satisfy its football needs. Boston is also one of the ten largest media markets in the country and has the largest population, to say nothing of traditional connections to Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
Besides having nearly a quarter-million Canadians, I think there’s an opening in New England due to the large geographical swath taken up by the Boston megalopolis. Manchester and Providence (the two ends of said megalopolis) are 100 miles away from each other.
With the Pats playing halfway between Boston and Providence, I think there is a potential expansion opportunity in Central or North Boston. And the CFL could fill that opening.
Population: 4,345,978 (an additional 319,246 in Windsor and 89,555 in Sarnia)
Canadian population: 103,942 (2.4 percent, excludes Windsor and Sarnia)
Stadium: Pontiac Silverdome (80,311)
Well, Pontiac. The current owner of the Silverdome, bought for a song after the Lions’ departure, has been angling for a CFL or MLS franchise for his aging edifice.
Along with Upstate New York, Detroit-Windsor is the other market that has been continually been mentioned as a CFL USA site. That’s with good reason: Detroit has the second-largest population of Canadians among U.S. metros, the highest percentage, and nearly half a million Canadians live across the St. Clair River in Southern Ontario.
What are the drawbacks? Well, the Silverdome is now 38 years old. In addition, Detroit and Windsor are markets in decline that have to compete with the Lions for football eyeballs.
Canadian population: 52,279 (4.3 percent)
Stadium: Rentschler Field (40,000)
Hartford was considered for the initial CFL USA in the '90s, and as a move site for the New England Patriots. Both proposals failed because Rentschler Field hadn’t been built yet. Now it has.
Hartford makes a lot of sense because it is in a market without pro football, but within a few hours of more than 30 million people, and has one of the largest Canadian-American markets. CFL USA should start with Hartford.