New balls please! The CFL is using a new ball for the 2018 season.

New balls please! The CFL is using a new ball for the 2018 season.

If you have even a tiny bit of geekishness in you and are a fan of something then you are likely to have a heard a certain refrain. It goes along the lines of, just because you love something, you don’t have to know everything about it! Usually followed by an exasperated sigh.

Anybody reading that last paragraph might imagine its the sort of thing that applies only to the sci-fi nerd fraternity. As an example say, someone wanting to know for instance what type of camera tracking shots were used to create the famous Star Wars introductory crawl at the start of the films. (The crawl effect was accomplished by moving a camera longitudinally along a floor level model, but I digress).

The thing is, sports fandom can be just as geeky in its own way. Getting somebody started on the history of uniform changes for their favourite team can open up a panoply of images, or even just some deeply held convictions about what should and shouldn’t be on a teams jersey for instance.

So when the CFL announced it was using a new ball for the 2018 season, , there may have been those who weren’t that interested. Those of us that love to embrace our inner geek though found it fascinating.

The new ball is being introduced following feedback from the players. During 2017, CFL clubs had the chance to test the Wilson ball used in the NFL. Feedback from quarterbacks showed they preferred the laces used on CFL balls but the leather of the NFL balls. With that in mind, Ryan Janzen, Senior Director of Football Operations for the CFL noted, “The new ball is virtually identical, to the eye, to the old one. It has the same laces and markings including our stripes. But it is made of a slightly harder leather. Our partners at Wilson say that allows it to hold its pebbles better.”

The CFL has history when it comes to the balls the game is played with. Like the NFL and college football, that ball has evolved over time. That said, there haven’t been many big changes since the 1950s. Except for a controversial moment in the mid 80s.

In 1985 Spalding arbitrarily changed the size of the football making it wider than before. This was after closing the factory where they had long been made. Spalding did then give the CFL the choice to return to the smaller ball when the second shipment of footballs was delivered at mid-season but the CFL chose to complete the 1985 season with the bigger balls.

This was something of a brief interlude however, and the return to more standardised ball size came quickly. In fact the old Spalding J5V ball used to be the standard game ball for the CFL, and this is the one that people seem to remember as a potentially ‘bigger’ (fatter) ball. However the specifications of the J5V football shown in the CFL rulebook in 1986 are strikingly similar the dimensions of the Wilson football  published in the 2011 CFL rulebook.

It might just be that advertising is still resonating down the years here. In 1996 the CFL was trying to find its way again after the failure of its expansion into US territories. The CFL launched a ‘Radically Canadian’ branding exercise highlighting the return to an all Canadian league in a positive way.

One of the slogans of that campaign was ‘Our balls are bigger’ referring to the supposed bigger size of the CFL ball. It was a radical advertising approach with a slightly risque feel as the league tried to find its feet. Even if it wasn’t true that their balls were bigger it was part of a concerted effort by the league to both differentiate itself from the NFL and re-position itself at an economically difficult moment.

That infamous “our balls are bigger” campaign has long resonated however, so when the CFL talked about introducing a new ball for 2018, it will have raised more than a few eyebrows amongst those with an interest in the ball the game is played with.




Chris Lawton

Chris Lawton joined the team in 2017 and has been writing about the CFL ever since. He originally started following the NFL with the 'first wave' of fans when it was shown on Channel 4 in the 1980's. He has been a keen supporter of the Miami Dolphins since 1983. Chris first encountered the CFL in 2016 and instantly fell in love with the Canadian game. He has been writing about the CFL from the inception of Ninety-Nine Yards. You can find him on twitter as @CFLfanUK

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