Ed Willes: It's time the CFL relied on more than nostalgia for its existence
My mother was born and raised in Regina about five blocks from Taylor Field, which was named for Neil J. “Piffles” Taylor, a former Saskatchewan Roughriders player and team president.
Piffles fought in First World War, spent time in a prisoner of war camp and returned to the Riders sporting a glass eye. During a game in 1919, the glass eye popped out, occasioning a short delay as players on both teams searched for the orb. It was eventually located, Piffles popped it back in place and the game continued.
I came upon this story in the course of a random search on Taylor Field, which I hoped would provide some texture to a column about the CFL and what it’s meant to this country. On Monday, league commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced the COVID-19 pandemic had succeeded where the Gliebermans, the Las Vegas Posse and any number of bankruptcies and financial crises had failed.
It cancelled the 2020 season and while Ambrosie, who doesn’t discourage easily, was still talking about the CFL’s future, it’s hard to be optimistic about the league given everything it faces.
The CFL, in the last decade or so, has become like jazz music or David Lynch movies. It inspires a group of followers who are fiercely loyal but its appeal is lost on a wider audience. You have to get the CFL to love it and, admittedly, it requires some effort to look past its flaws and take the Canadian game into your heart.
But if you were born into it — if your father and mother sat in Taylor Field when they were courting and watched Glenn Dobbs; if your seven-year-old self caught a pass from Russ Jackson as part of a promo in Ottawa; if you were thrilled to interview Roughriders quarterback Joe Paopao on one of your first big assignments with the Regina Leader-Post — then you understand this is a black day.
True, you could see this coming as a clumsy Ambrosie tried to navigate his way through the mine field created by the COVID-19 health crisis. It was a near-impossible situation and Ambrosie needlessly complicated it by overselling his hand on the first ask to the federal government. Technically, he wasn’t asking for $150 million but that become the headline and the league never recovered when that number registered with a public fighting its own battles.
On Monday, Ambrosie essentially laid the blame for the cancellation at the feet of the feds, saying the CFL needed public financial support which never materialized. You can almost understand why Ambrosie thought help was coming because, well, help has always arrived for the CFL.
Except this time it didn’t.
Why is the next question but it’s hard to see how, with everything else going on in Canada, the feds could shell out $30 million at attractive terms to a league which, for the most part, is privately operated. And that was just one of the problems. The league had identified Winnipeg as its bubble site and was asking the city to host some 600 players, many of whom were coming from COVID hot spots in the States. They were going to play a six-game schedule, 27 games, followed by six playoff games and the Grey Cup, all in an empty stadium.
The league has a hard enough time selling itself in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Try selling that one.
No, in the end, time ran out on the CFL. They could have helped themselves with a cleaner, better-organized sales pitch to the feds but that isn’t the CFL way. Over the years they had survived innumerable calamities through some combination of their own resourcefulness, resiliency and blind luck and they likely thought they could do it again.
But this time the league needed to be something else. It needed to be sharp and on point. it needed to identify all the problem areas and prepare solutions for those areas. They couldn’t just wing it like they’d done in the past.
The irony here, of course, is that’s one of the CFL’s most endearing qualities for those who’ve stuck with it. It’s not slick. It’s not polished. In a sports world which has become increasingly cold and corporate, there is a ragged quality to the CFL, which actually enhances its product.
It’s hard for most fans to relate to the problems of, say, a billion-dollar business like the Dallas Cowboys. But they can relate to the CFL, a league which has to hustle to survive, a league where most of the players make a salary comparable to their own.
It’s real life, not just fantasy. Couple that with the players, the stories, the history and the league found a place in the Canadian consciousness.
Is it still there? Good question and the survival of the CFL depends on the answer. Maybe the league’s supporters are longing for a time which will never return. Maybe the league doesn’t offer enough to reach a sufficient number of the next generation of fans.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing but it can’t be the only thing. The CFL brand has a durability which has seen it through some tough times. But now it needs to be something else and that transition will not be easy.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020