Why I should be CFL Commissioner

April 14, 2017 - 6:55pm

We are about a week or so away from the opening of the Rider mini-camp in Florida and the question of whether Vince Young is real or is he Memorex will not be fully answered, but it will be entertaining to ask the question.

In the meantime CFL fans have been entertained or enraged, depending on their team affiliation, with events in Edmonton and Toronto as the Eskimos parted ways with General Manager Ed Hervey and the CFL parted ways with Jeffrey Orridge.

The Eskimos said their move was because of money issues and being unable to meet the expectations of Hervey and something like greater accessibility. The CFL said its move was a mutual decision over differences in the the vision for the league.

That begs the question of what exactly is the vision for the league? Orridge started off with the new logo and website which was not artfully executed. For example, make sure you actually have a website when you announce a relaunched website.

Then here in Saskatchewan there were the fines for the extra practice roster players and, while Chris Jones may claim were nothing new in other locations, seemed to be a problem in Saskatchewan. Taking the homer aspect out of it, running through a record number of players through the roster would seem to beg some kind of questions and the CFL was justified in fining the Riders.

The two events could be said to be two sides of the same coin, with both reflecting competing visions of what the CFL could or should be in the years to come. The interesting thing is neither vision appears to have prevailed which means the next stage of the CFL is very much a work in progress.

One of the reasons for Edmonton releasing Hervey was his providing lack of accessibility for media to the Eskimo locker room and for fighting the TSN plan to mic coaches and quarterbacks, turning the mics off when the quarterbacks went to the line of scrimmage iso fans would have a greater insight into the game.

Curling has done this and with curlers being even more working class concerns about inappropriate language would have been expected but curlers have learned to watch their language for the most part, and the insights from listening to the curlers talk about strategy add to the appreciation of the game. It doesn’t matter if you know what the other team is going to do, you have to execute what you do in order to win.

Eskimo fans have gnashed their teeth over the release of Hervey, feeling the Grey Cup win did a lot to wipe away the stench of defeat and shame from the Eric Tillman/Danny Machoccia years, and said with some justification that low attendance was not necessarily the focus of the GM. The attendance card was played by the CEO of the Eskimos in his statement on releasing Hervey, and the media access was another factor cited.

Attendance is the responsibility of marketing and the days of announcing a schedule, throwing the doors open and expecting people to show up are pretty much over.  It is much harder for a CFL team in the same city as a NHL team to compete for attention but what it requires is marketing to work together with football operations and operate in a way that raises the profile of the team in the community, encourages interest in the team which translates into ticket and merchandise sales.

When it comes to media access, the NFL mandates all teams provide media access to locker rooms, even when it results in Super Bowl jerseys being stolen as a result of said access. This is the football off season, but on weekly afternoons on TSN I can watch two hours of NFL talk about the upcoming draft, player moves or whatever.

I work at the RCMP Training Depot where I run across cadets from all over Canada. I wear one of the two Rider Owner Grey Cup Rings and hear from cadets how surprised they are at how passionate people are about CFL football while say from Ottawa, their parents were into NFL football football and they played flag football using NFL rules.

Now the NFL has experienced a drop in ratings and the recent franchise moves from St. Louis to Los Angeles, San Diego to Los Angeles and Oakland to Las Vegas will do nothing but alienate fans who realize their passion means nothing to their owners unless their owners can access public money to increase their profits.

The other situation is the impact of concussions. Parents are pondering whether they should let their children play football considering the risk of concussions which may lead to health problems later on in life. Its an issue in sports such as hockey, which is also looking at how the increasing costs of participation are forcing parents from lower income families to find some sport more budget friendly for their kids.

In the area of concussions, there is a trend now to back away from kids playing tackle football at an early age and having them participate more in flag football, which does not require the same equipment and allows them to learn the game. As an added plus to building audience, you can have male and female mixed flag football teams because the physical demands are not the same.

The NFL is wisely moving into the flag football youth sponsorship arena and the CFL should also be doing the same. In getting a more kid and health friendly format, it allows kids to learn the various skills to playing the game, appreciate the excitement and strategy and if they don’t move to contact football, they may be inclined to watch or buy tickets to games for the social aspect.

The other aspect of growing the game where the CFL has fallen down on is developing a video game. Entire generations have grown up playing NFL football on video and in the process creating even more fans and forcing more innovations in how the game is presented.

There was news this month about a Canadian football video game about to be launched and since there was no licensing from the CFL the formatting would not be ideal. However, investing in a video game and releasing it would expose more people to the more wide open nature of the Canadian game.  The quickness of the game places more demands on the video players and that could well translate into more people watching the actual games to see how reality matches up to video. Anyway you want to slice it, a video game would promote the Canadian game in a new format and potentially attract new fans.

The CFL is at times its own worst enemy, with nine teams operating as their own fiefdoms and with a degree of parochialism that accurately reflects the country as a whole. The CFL has to recognize it is a working class league and cannot charge the same ticket prices as say for the NFL or NHL.

Last year the Toronto Argonauts lost sight of that by jacking up Grey Cup ticket prices in the mistaken belief the market would be swallow the cost. While this was the decision of the Argonauts, it reflected a misguided appreciation of the CFL fan base and their ability and willingness to pay.

The best thing the CFL has done is bring in the salary management system so we are spared sights like each team paying a portion of the salary of some Toronto football signee nin order to raise the visibility of the team in that city. We are also spared the “Eskimo Way” of the late 1970s-1980s where they could afford taxi squad players and could trade with Hamilton to pick up players for another Cup run.

In a salary management system, it is still possible to build a dynasty and I will use the New England Patriots as an example, but that requires the team and players asking how important winning is for them. With the CFL having a system in place to avoid situations of one team abusing the league in one form or another, the CFL has to avoid sitting back and running itself like a glorified mom and pop store, or used car lot.

The CFL needs to keep their ticket prices affordable, even in Toronto. Get people to the game, have them entertained at the game, especially if their team is losing, and give them things to do and stuff to wear to market the team after the game is over. If the CFL is more affordable than other sports and more fan friendly, then more people will identify with it and follow it.

The CFL has stepped somewhat into the world of Fantasy Football with Draftkings where people can pick players to form their own teams and win money. It’s a good step forward, but the league will have to look at the changing media landscape and how they can get their product out to more people.

In an age of cord cutting where people are cutting their cable subscriptions, other vehicles like watching games on mobile devices or getting games streamed on Twitter or Google are becoming options being looked at by the NFL. This will require a new way of measuring ratings, something cable companies have discovered as they are charging more for sports bars to show their signals.

I have stumbled onto something the last couple of months while working out on my elliptical machine. I like to watch games and have found on You Tube CFL games with the commercials taken out and they run from one and an half to two and a half hours depending on what year the games were. They last roughly as long as a workout and some of the fascinating things is watching old games, seeing the players and the old uniforms and stadiums.

If the CFL had a library of old games like this, i would definitely watch, and it could even play a part in selling the league. The league would have to work with former broadcast partners to identify those games and work out some sort of profit sharing, but this would be a win-win for everyone, including the fans.

Having watched live games everywhere except for Montreal, increasing the fan day experience is another way to sell the league to current and potential fans. One of the interesting things at the Marks Work Warehouse CFL Week were the number of exhibits set up for use by youth. Taking what works there and bringing it to the stadiums along with the pre-game cookouts in Calgary, the Ottawa fan day experience and the efforts in Toronto to try to grow the value for fans need to be encouraged and perhaps cross pollinated in other centres.

Not everything in one city will work in another, but a systematic exploration of best practices would result in happy accidents where a good idea would pay off for the team and league.

Another approach to marketing, or perhaps this would best be described as a marketing opportunity lost, came with the CFL Combine Week.  A few years ago Under Armour came out with their Combine selection of shirts, shorts and sweats with combine written on them indicating that you were in training for a football camp.

It was a great bit of marketing and I thought if Under Armour and the NFL did this for that combine week, why couldn’t Adidas and the CFL do something similar for the the CFL week? Adidas did provide the participants with specific items for use in the combine but did not provide anything for sale to the public.

I asked about this and was told the demand would be too small to justify such an investment, but if the CFL continues with the CFL/Combine week and opening it to the public, then why not try a run of such stuff and see how it goes? I like collecting game worn jerseys and if there is something stylish and comfortable,  I would be interested in getting something like that. When you look at the growing sports memorabilia business, it wouldn’t hurt to do that, or even to buy back the licensing for old jerseys and releasing those in limited editions. The Montreal Expos stuff still goes off the shelves.

The  bottom line for the CFL is if all teams are financially healthy, then all teams benefit. The league cannot be complacent in finding ways to attract and keep new fans and yet must try not to alienate fans who have been following the league for years. Not everything will work in attracting new fans, but somethings may emerge that may surprise people.

Self interest may be a selfish way of operating, but the self interest of all the CFL teams is a healthy league means more money for their members. Selling the game means more money for their broadcast partners and that makes more money for the teams. The CFL doesn’t need to be the size of the NFL, but it can act as the incubator for changes that improve the game and eventually get taken up by the NFL.

It’s a plan that Ed Hervey couldn’t quite get and Jeffrey Orridge couldn’t sell because he didn’t understand it. Hopefully it is one the CFL may yet get.

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