I intend to return to the NHL and its recent decision to pursue controversy but wanted to spend time today regarding the other issue which is causing Canadian sports fans great disappointment. Announcing it’s 2011 schedule in mid-February, the Canadian Football League (CFL) had a lot of good will going into the draft season; ratings have never been higher, all eight teams are on relatively stable footing, including the oft-prone Ontario teams which will soon be rejoined by Ottawa, and a stable of sponsors which is finally growing into a respectable group of cash-flush backers, able and willing to transform the league from a stands-based revenue generator to one which could get significant cash through the developing relationship with TSN and the lucrative TV contracts associated with such activity.
I don’t want to overplay the significance of the gaffes that the CFL walked into so far this year with the release of this year’s schedule…Hamilton is still getting the Half-a-Dome (TM), Montreal isn’t going to fold and the 2010 Canadian all-star Andy Fantuz isn’t going to become the first of an exodus of talented players to the NFL…yes the league clearly dropped the ball in their reintroduction of some sour ideas from its dark days of the 1990s. With the return of Thursday night games, and even see the occasional scrimmage on a Wednesday night, it will stand to be seen if those ratings from Wendy’s Friday Night Football can survive the mid-week doldrums. Thankfully both incidents are rare, indicating that the league is reintroducing the weekday games more so for Ottawa’s imminent return than out of a desire to retest ideas that clearly didn’t work back when the sport had to do the five game third and long at the beginning of the last decade.
Recently embattled cities Hamilton and Toronto might not feel so grateful though; the season-defining Labour Day Classic, which has come to define the pinnacle of the season for fans on both points along the QEW, will not be happening in Ontario this year, provoking fans to call up league commissioner Mark Cohon in an effort to have the decision reversed. It’s a noble, but increasingly unlikely effort. The decision to reinstate the ultimate rivalry game has been met with a poor and somewhat Toronto-centric excuse that the facility formerly known as Sky Dome won’t be available very often for the Argos in the fall due to Rogers owning both the facility and the Blue Jays, which gives the baseball team added advantage in having first picks on the home game dates (MLB wouldn’t likely take kindly to being told to go rearrange its own schedule due to a Canadian league of eight teams insisting on some more flexibility).
This leaves the Argos with little choice but to play their own home game during the September long weekend. Comparing the Ti-Cats home game schedule with that of the Argos reveals that Steeltown will really be shafted this fall as a result; only four home games will be played inside Hamilton’s borders, while the Argos at least get six. The discrepancy is a little too obvious to be excused as a nasty plot between Rogers and the MLB planners. The rest of the league doesn’t fare much better, with awkward clumps of home and away games that will steal from some of the exciting thunder during last year’s season (see Montreal’s frequent trips to Hamilton; a two in Saskatchewan/two in Calgary set of games that will hurt the building rivalry between those teams for other examples…)
As I had stated above, this won’t kill the league or lead into a decade of decline, but it does reveal a bit of a misfire on the league’s part. For a city which was recently in a heated battle to find a new stadium which never materialized, the CFL is taking a risk on further alienating Hamilton’s strong fan base after it last year threatened to move the CFL team out of the industrial city in order to jolt Hamilton city council back to reason during the infamous stadium debate Conspiracy theorists will no doubt suggest that Bob Young might be trying to get back at Hamilton for failing to deliver on Confederation Park, but it’s more likely that the league just took it’s historic Toronto-first approach (see the #1 spot that the Grey Cup gets played in).
What the planners failed to realize is that Hamilton, and southern Ontario as a whole, needs a greater saturation of CFL exposure if it’s the CFL is going to continue to thrive in the long term. Moncton and Quebec City seem like obvious suitors for new franchises one day, and that they are, but with a third of the country’s population and untapped pockets like London, Ontario or US-border town Windsor, all with 500,000-sized populations, it’d be foolish to let the NFL have free reign on defining football in these areas if the CFL wants to outgrow the also-played league image that is sadly prominent down here and to continue to generate revenue. I say this as an ardent supporter of the league which has made some excellent decisions over the last five to seven years in particular; ignoring Ontario isn’t so much of a fatal gaffe as it is a squanders opportunity. With 2011 kicking off shortly, perhaps the league should keep an eye on those overlooked fans come 2012 — it certainly couldn’t hurt the gate sales.