The CFL is sixty – sort of! Canadian professional became a formalised organisation, formed in 1956 as the Canadian Football Council, created by the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU). Though the IRFU still referred to their sport as rugby football, the member clubs played american football. The WIFU and IRFU became, respectively, the Western and Eastern conferences of the new league, which changed its name to the Canadian Football League (CFL) in 1958. So depending how you look at it the pro league is 60 or 62, but in terms of being recognisably the CFL the league is sixty years old. Lest we forget however, football under formalized rules has been played in Canada since the 1860s, prior to the CFL embarking on its formal existence in January 1958.
Until 1961 there was no interdivisional play. Instead each conference decided a winner to meet in the Grey Cup game. Limited interlinking play after 1961 allowed east-west rivalries to develop, and this accelerated league populaity. By 1981 both divisions were playing 16 games in fully linked schedules and in 1986 the schedule was increased to 18 games, as are played today.
The CFL experienced a period of growth and relative stability in the 1970s and early 1980s, reaching an attendance record of 2,856,031 in 1983. In fact, the early 1980s appeared promising for Canadian football and the fortunes of the CFL appeared to be at an all-time high. Attendance was rising, sponsorship appeared to be increasing and the Grey Cup game was played indoors for the first time at BC Place Stadium. However, all was not as successful as it may have appeared.
The Montreal team was in serious financial trouble & folded prior to the 1987 season, leaving the league to move the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to the eastern division. By the late 1980s, attendance had dropped significantly at Grey Cup games and financial contracts with some leading sponsors were drying up. The ensuing decline in attendance, gate receipts and TV revenue hit the CFL and individual franchises hard. The imposition of a salary cap cut back excessive spending, but the franchises in Calgary, Ottawa and BC all required private investment to survive. Despite this, there are still 3 teams, (in a 9 team league), with community ownership: Winnipeg, Edmonton and Saskatchewan.
In the early 1990s the CFL took a more aggressive approach peaking with expansion into the United States. Then CFL commissioner Larry Smith had big plans. His vision was of a multi site North American CFL with teams in the USA and Canada.
The Baltimore Stallions were arguably the only truly measurably successful expansion team for the CFL in the United States. They led the CFL in attendance in both 1994 and 1995 and crafted a 27-9 regular season and 5-1 playoff record. In the process becoming the only US-based team to win the Grey Cup. The other US teams all failed at the gate and folded following the 1995 season. After the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996, the Stallions relocated to Montreal for 1996, meaning a return to the CFL for the Alouettes franchise. With the re-emergence of Montreal, the league returned to its traditional format of teams in the east and west.
The league survived the 1996 season and re-instituted a salary cap to ease its financial problems. In the late 1990s, attendance in the CFL grew, sponsorships increased and television network ratings went up. Nevertheless, the Ottawa Rough Riders were disbanded in 1996. Ottawa had a team (the Renegades) between 2002 and 2005 but this was again disbanded. Ottawa now has the Reblacks, who started play in 2014 and remarkably went from a 2-16 inaugural season to lifting the Grey cup in 2016.
There are signs that the league is now looking ahead a little more. In May 2017, the league launched its “Bring It In” campaign, designed to diversify its fan base and attract more women and younger fans. It now has 9 teams that are reasonably well established. To the point that newly appointed commissioner Randy Ambrosie has mooted the idea of an expansion to a 10th team in the Atlantic territories in Canada. Whilst that may take a few years to develop the idea of the league being in a position to sanction such an expansion can only be viewed in a positive light by fans.
Despite recent successes and genuine causes for optimism however, the CFL continues to have concerns. Attendance has declined in Vancouver and Hamilton and Toronto continue to struggle at the gate. Argos fans will be hoping winning the 2018 Grey Cup and improved marketing can create some buzz in the city for their team. Further, whilst Saskatchewan have a great new stadium and others have moved or upgraded facilities, Calgary’s home is much in need of improvement.
Overall though the CFL seems to be on that positive path thanks to deals with TSN and ESPN. In 2014, then-commissioner Mark Cohon agreed to a broadcasting deal with both networks. As a result, the CFL received $30 million for broadcasting and streaming rights. The CFL has also gained exposure to a greater audience. It may be dwarfed by NFL ratings, bit the CFL is growing in popularity in the US market, and we can watch it here on BT Sport, something not possible a few short years ago.
For fans the first 60 years have been fascinating. On the back of a great 2017 season and a thrilling Grey Cup fans will no doubt be wondering what the next 60 have in store. As ever, it will be fun finding out!