Why the Canadian Football League Should Pursue American Expansion.
So, this article will take some explaining.
Fans of American football are probably asking, "But...why?"
Fans of Canadian football are probably asking, "But...why again?"
There is fair reason to be skeptical of the idea of American CFL teams. The first and last time the CFL tried this, it was such a failure--with one exception--that it nearly destroyed the league, with the NFL giving a multimillion dollar loan to keep the league afloat. But this is 2022, not the early 1990s, and the landscape of sports at large is completely different.
Let's address the issue Socratically.
Question: Why expand the CFL to the United States?
Answer: The grand question. The short answer is because it has to. The long answer is because it presents the greatest opportunity for the league's long-term health and success. There's a growing interest in the Canadian game in the United States that the league is either unaware of or is ignoring. The fact of the matter is that the CFL is actually in a pretty good spot, from a logistic standpoint. Canadian-style play has completely taken over American college football through the Air Raid--which from a strategy standpoint looks a lot like a standard Canadian rules passing offense adapted to 11-man, 4 down ball--and is rapidly taking over the NFL, with the running quarterback becoming the norm rather than a novelty, the extinction of the fullback, the increasing prevalence of nickel defenses as the base defensive back formation in the league, and the evolution of the traditional running back and tight end into quasi-slotbacks.
The issue is that this has left American rules football in a sort of identity crisis. The specific rules that allow Canadian rules ball to work don't exist in American rules, so at best it looks like a poor imitation. American rules football requires some massive rules changes, particularly around equipment, safety around concussions, and an overhaul of the penalty system, but I've already talked about that at length. Complaints about American rules play have been around for literally 50 years.
The NFL is truly Too Big to Fail. Ideas of competing or overtaking it died with the merger of American and National leagues in 1970. No other league has even come remotely close. But there is very clearly a market for the other rules code of gridiron football.
Question: What does the CFL have that the various spring leagues don't?
Answer: Namely, longevity and cultural relevance. A good chunk of the CFL has been around for as long as many NFL stalwarts, with only one old-timer failing in a single iteration (the Ottawa Rough Riders). These teams have established identities and culture, even if recent trends don't really seem to bear that out. American rules spring leagues, meanwhile, struggle immensely to make a name and identity for themselves, mainly relying on celebrities in ownership and slight rules changes that feel more gimmicky in practice. The only spring league iteration that looked like it could actually survive its initial season was the 2020 XFL, which fell victim to the business management "skills" of Vince McMahon (and there are things this XFL did that the CFL should absolutely look at, regardless of American expansion). The 2022 USFL became somewhat of a joke for its consistently poor play and lack of serious parity, and the 2023 XFL has made several changes that I'm not certain will help the league compared to its 2020 iteration.
What the CFL also has over the spring leagues is that it's, well, a fully professionalized league, with salaries and a union. The 2020 XFL was un-unionized and players were paid a stipend of a couple thousand dollars to play. You *can* use the CFL as a "stepping stone" to the NFL, but there's plenty of players who find longevity and satisfaction in the CFL outright. The same cannot be said for the spring leagues, which are pretty much marketed as NFL development labs. For as much of a reputation that the CFL has as a place for "NFL retreads", the spring leagues seem to sort of explicitly say they're for players who got cut from the big league (McMahon toyed with the idea of opening the XFL up to 18 year olds, but that never saw implementation). Salary reform in the CFL is a separate conversation, but there's a pretty clear opportunity, especially with expansion into the United States, to state that the CFL is not a stepping-stone league, but another equally professional league with a long history and culture, and what's more, you can now play closer to home.
Question: Where would you expand the CFL?
Answer: Buffalo, Seattle, and Detroit. There are several very specific reasons for these three cities.
The first attempt at American expansion failed because it expanded into college football territory, or into cities that 90s financial logic said would be good locations. This is the same logic that lead the NFL to put teams in Jacksonville and Charlotte, which prognosticators in the time of the Clinton boom thought would become top 10 metros in the US; this did not bear out, and these teams would have most likely relocated by now if the NFL was, again, not Too Big to Fail. Because of this, the first qualifier is that the prospective city must be on, or within a two hour drive of, the Canadian border.
Detroit and Buffalo are on the border, and are within driving distance of other CFL teams. Seattle is a two hour drive from the border, but right across that border is the BC Lions.
The second qualifier is that the city must have facilities that can support a professional football team. All three cities have NFL teams and NFL stadiums that can be modified to fit a Canadian rules field.
The third qualifier is that the city must have an existing strong foundational sports culture. Relying on a college football fanbase to support a team that plays from June to October is suicidal, especially since the CFL plays, primarily, on Fridays and Saturdays. Seattle, Detroit, and Buffalo all have more than one professional sports team, and all three are especially passionate about them. This is why the Baltimore CFL franchise was the only one to see success: a city that had been burned by being abandoned by the Colts latched onto the Stallions and filled out a decrepit Memorial Stadium to watch them play.
The fourth is that there would be a natural rivalry between the new American team and another CFL team. Buffalo is an hour drive away from Toronto and 45 minutes from Hamilton, and Detroit is further away but a natural rivalry with Hamilton, two cities with a history of industry, feels appropriate. Seattle would not only have a natural rivalry with British Columbia, but give the Lions a Labour Day Classic slot.
Question: So what must a second American expansion have in order to work?
Answer: There are three components to this.
1. Community ownership and investment. Under the present system of liberal capitalism, the most ideal way for sports teams to survive, especially in smaller leagues and cities, is what will be called the Green Bay Model--that is, public "ownership" through the dispersal of limited-rights stock--over the franchise model, typically one owner or a consortium dominated by one member. The franchise model is highly dependent on individual wealth and commitment to the team for the team to succeed, and leaving the future of the team up to the whims of the owner/consortium. This can lead to situations like what happened to the Seattle Supersonics and Baltimore Colts, with disgruntled ownership straight up abandoning a city, and consequently its fanbase, over petty disputes with the city, typically over stadia. In a smaller, less financially secure league like the CFL, leaving teams, especially new ones, up to the whims of an owner is a fatal error. These theoretical American teams *must* be community-owned if they are to survive.
2. Thorough and intense engagement with the cities, and cooperation with the NFL. As I said above, the CFL cannot hope to compete directly with the NFL, nor should it want to. The NFL has more or less said they have no interest in competing directly with the CFL, and based on past actions, would rather see the CFL succeed than not. Events and "deep dive" YouTube series done between the American NFL and CFL teams, which individual NFL and CFL teams have started doing more in the past few years, would help boost cross-code understanding and appreciation. Scheduling to avoid conflict with NFL and college home games is easier to do from the CFL standpoint than that of an alternative American rules league (which leads them to just play in the spring instead).
3. Low ticket prices/low bar for accessibility. This might require a league-wide reform, but the one thing that led to the success of the 2020 XFL was it's extremely low ticket costs (capped at $50 for a 50 yard line single game seat, amounting to a $250 season ticket). The single most critical thing the CFL could do to not just boost willingness of American fans to support their new clubs, but boost sales across the league, would be to look at similar price controls on tickets. With professional sports becoming harder and harder for working-class people, especially those with families, to attend, it's imperative for the CFL to expand the potential support base by making games cheap and accessible. This would also make it more possible for people to support *both* the CFL and NFL team, rather than forcing them to pick one over the other.
Question: Cool, cool. Now what about realignment and scheduling?
Answer: It would put the CFL in an interesting position, since the league hasn't played with more than 9 teams since the first American expansion. Realignment is simple enough:
Scheduling is another matter. The CFL currently operates on a 21 week schedule with 18 games, with every team playing every other team twice plus two additional games against a rotating divisional opponent. Keeping this structure would mean a season of 24 games. To keep the current schedule, the most obvious fix is playing each divisional opponent twice (10 games), playing the opposing division's teams once each (6 games), plus the two additional games against a rotating divisional opponent for a total of 18.
Question: Okay, makes sense to me. So what would these new teams look like?
Answer: So this is the part of article where I move from general logistics to fan ideas, but speculation is fun anyway.
Seattle has a maritime/Native theme with its club names (Mariners, Seahawks, Storm, Sounders, Seawolves, Kraken, Thunderbirds), so Bears or Black Bears would be a good name to go with, going with an authentic Native angle since the Seahawks abandoned their inspiration (a Salish mask of a hawk) when Paul Allen bought the team. Working with Native nations and individuals to design the team's aesthetics, like the Spokane Indians minor league baseball team did recently, would be supreme.
Detroit has a Big Cat theme with the Lions and Tigers, so Leopards or Snow Leopards could be a good choice. A color scheme of ice blue and white/cream to elicit frost would be a good pairing.
Buffalo has had many, many former teams use the Bison/Bisons name, but another minor trend was a lumber theming. Lumbermen, Lumberjacks, or something similar could be neat.
Question: So, what's the likelihood of any of this happening?
Answer: Very, very small.