There were two pieces of news in the CFL on Thursday, one that the league is very happy to promote and one that it would rather not.
The first was the inaugural European draft, where each team picked a player from among the small group that attended last month’s draft combine, as commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s “CFL 2.0” concept barrels along without anyone still knowing how it would work in the details.
The second is the announcement from Montreal-area businessman Clifford Starke that he would like to buy the Alouettes.
Starke is taking the unusual step of declaring his intent to purchase because he is a having a hard time trying to get the current owners on the phone. It has been known for some time that the Wetenhall family, which revived the Alouettes and oversaw the team’s return to glory, would like to sell. It is unclear if they still own the franchise, if the league has taken it over, or if a sale to someone other than Starke is still being quietly worked out. What is certain is that the sale has not gone quickly, repeating the process that took place in Toronto with the Argonauts, and in Vancouver with the Lions, where franchise owners cannot find someone to meet their asking price. In each market, the three largest in the CFL, a motivated seller can’t rustle up what they think is a proper bid. It’s an awkward look.
That this is happening against the European draft is interesting mostly for reasons of optics. When Ambrosie formally announced his 2.0 vision at the Grey Cup, he waved away the notion that the league should be focused instead on the problems in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. We can work on both, he said.
But only one of those things is essential to the CFL’s long-term survival, and it’s not the one that the league has been so heavily promoting.
I’ll confess here to being a CFL 2.0 skeptic from the outset. The idea of growing revenues from other countries is reasonable on its own, but the problems are obvious. The hope is that by adding players from Mexico and Europe, the CFL will be able to sell TV and streaming deals in those territories. But after the best of those global players — at least those who agreed to come try out on their own dime — were observed in combines, the most optimistic assessments included phrases like “they didn’t look totally out of place,” and personnel types imagined them perhaps contributing on special teams. This isn’t surprising: of course the best young athletes in those countries end up pursuing pro careers in soccer, hockey or basketball, or any sport in which there is a viable future. Is a gifted German going to pursue soccer, where there are several fully professional leagues, or work a second job while playing for the semi-pro Potsdam Royals?
And so, if these global players are competing for CFL roster spots with Americans, it seems extremely unlikely that they would be able to beat them out on merit. That’s probably also true if they were competing with Canadians for national spots; there is much more of a development infrastructure here. If global spots are then added to the roster as a way to ensure this international flavour, does the CFL imagine this handful of players will spark real interest in these countries that have never before cared about the league? Are tens of thousands of Danes going to become Redblacks fans because the third-string left tackle is from Copenhagen?
The commissioner likes to imagine a world in which tens of millions of new international CFL fans are interested in his league, which is, again, a nice idea, but one that ignores the experience of NFL Europe, which wasn’t able to succeed despite having actual teams in European cities, and with the backing (and developmental talent) of the mightiest football league in the world. (The NFL, incidentally, decided this week to experiment with practice-roster spots for Europeans, immediately giving would-be pros a more lucrative option than a CFL job.)
The implication of this strategy is also significant. Ambrosie, in full salesman mode, talks about putting his league “at the epicentre of international football,” and making it an “aggregator” of the semi-pro leagues in Europe. But that’s a fundamental pivot from what had been the league’s identity. He doesn’t want the CFL to be a small league, Ambrosie said in Toronto on his recent town hall tour. And also this about the league’s future: “Not as much the Canadian Football League as we are the CFL,” the commissioner said. “Going forward, we are going to be the CFL.”
So much for “this is our game,” a sentiment expressed quite proudly by the existing fan base.
Meanwhile, the ownership situation is a problem in Vancouver, is cloudy at best in Montreal and in Toronto, the move to a new stadium has only brought three seasons of poor attendance (and a Grey Cup). While someone like me gets a fiddling-while-Rome-burns vibe from it all, Ambrosie insists that downplaying the Canadian aspect of the CFL with the 2.0 strategy will ultimately help the league in the more multicultural markets of the big cities.
I still don’t get it. There are many reasons for the CFL’s challenges in in the league’s largest urban centres, but a lack of Finnish, German or Mexican players is not one of them.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019