CFL-XFL merger talk is no joke

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Hopefully by now you have seen all the stories about an “alignment” or collaboration between the Canadian Football League and the XFL, led by former WWE star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. There is a lot of talk out there that the two leagues could end up merging.

Big changes could be coming, with possibly American rules and American-sized 100-yard fields. We could see the Saskatchewan Roughriders take on the St. Louis BattleHawks or Seattle Dragons in no time flat.

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Right now there is a ton of speculation about what these two leagues are cooking up.

The consensus opinion is that both sides are considerably down the road in their “talks.” Folks, this is no joke, you folks here in Saskatchewan need to wrap your heads around the possibility that the ‘Riders could end up an XFL team — or at least playing in the same league as them.

Anyone who thinks that this is “talking about talking” need to disabuse themselves of that notion right now. I say that because I know my football history, and history is repeating itself.

Back in 1966 the National Football League and the American Football League officially struck a merger deal to form one single NFL. I read all the accounts about how Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and Dallas Cowboys boss Tex Schramm were meeting at the Dallas airport, cooking up an accommodation.

The reason the AFL and NFL did a deal was because the two leagues were killing each other. It was the established, stodgy NFL versus the brash, innovative upstart league the AFL. They were raiding each other’s players, and driving costs through the roof in the process.

Sound familiar?

History is repeating itself, as the established and stodgy Canadian Football League finds itself having to fight for the same pool of players with the innovative and upstart XFL. No wonder both leagues are thinking of an accommodation.

No doubt, a lot of you must be reacting by asking the question “why does the CFL have to do this?!”

No doubt, this is the $64,000 Question that all the CFL franchises will have to answer to its long-time fans. There is a large contingent of CFL fans who clearly are very worried about throwing away all the traditions of the Canadian game.

The reality is that the CFL is a mess. They didn’t play any games in 2020, when the other major leagues pretty much all managed to get off the ground in some manner. The result was a loss estimated at $60-$80 million and a humiliating rejection of a bailout request made to the federal government.

Their demographics are awful. The CFL has a rapidly-aging fan base and are losing ground in the fight to get younger and more diverse audiences. The biggest issue is in the three biggest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The CFL clubs there are getting killed by the competition from the other sports in those markets. Too many folks in those places seem to regard the CFL as anachronistic and bush-league, and that’s assuming they care about the league at all.

The CFL is losing ground fast in media coverage. Just watch any of the sports shows on TSN and Sportsnet and see how much coverage they give to the CFL. It ain’t much. Instead, it’s all NHL coverage with a bit of Blue Jays and Raptors thrown in, and the football coverage you’re most likely to see is the NFL.

The reality is that the CFL and its member clubs need to figure out fast how to turn perceptions around and grow their business. The good news is there are lots of opportunities coming down the pike that the clubs can take advantage of. The bad news is that the CFL may not be in the best position to take advantage of them alone. Hence, the XFL comes into the picture.

(1) Sports betting. Several US states have already legalized single game sports betting, and Saskatoon MP Kevin Waugh has a bill before Parliament that will likely legalize it in Canada, too. This is a huge growth opportunity, and partnering up with the XFL in pursuing sports betting opportunities might open up the entire North American market.

(2) Video games. Everyone complains about how the CFL needs to have an EA Sports licensed video game to hook kids on the sport. By partnering with the XFL, you could have a bigger league that could tap into that market.

(3j esports. Other sports from the NBA to NASCAR have competitive esports games going. This is another chance to license your game, and hooking up with the XFL could tap into that American market.

(4) TV. Right now the CFL is stuck with a $50 million a year TV deal with TSN. If you merge with the XFL, not only do the CFL clubs finally tap into the American market, but the end result would be a league with possibly twice as many games a week on TV as the CFL has now, and more networks to show them. Imagine if Cody Fajardo and the Saskatchewan Roughriders are taking on Mark Trestman and the Tampa Bay Vipers — on FOX. How cool is that?

(5) Expansion. The fees from expansion to new markets will be a big help, but so far the CFL has gotten nowhere with that plan. Folks, how long has the CFL been talking about going to a 10th team in Halifax? Several years now?

Unfortunately, the league is mired in nine Canadian markets with no growth potential beyond it within Canada. If you team up with the XFL and create a North American league, you can expand to new football-obsessed markets in the USA, including ones left behind by the NFL. You might even put a team in Mexico. And that all means money for the owners.

(6) In short, all of what I’ve described above should help when it comes to merchandising and selling licensed apparel. A collaboration could address a lot of holes for both brands. By joining with the XFL, CFL clubs access a younger, hipper fan base. In turn, by hooking up with the CFL, the XFL taps into a long football tradition and gains the one thing it has lacked, and that’s credibility.

All that explains why the CFL and XFL are talking about talking, or whatever it is they are doing. 

Besides, we know what happened when the AFL and NFL merged. All the owners and players got stinking rich. It was a big win for everyone involved, including the fans.

For that reason alone, I am at least open-minded about the whole CFL-XFL thing — up to a point.

The difference is that in 1966, the NFL and AFL were both on their way up. In 2021, the CFL and XFL are heading the other way — down. In fact, both leagues shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic.

A CFL-XFL merger sounds almost too good to be true. You know what? It probably is.

A lot of us old-timers remember when the CFL had their American-expansion era of the mid-90s. That expansion was done for largely the same reasons I just talked about — mainly so the CFL could take in money from expanding to all these US cities. It kept the league afloat, but that was the only thing good about it. It was about as total a flop as you can get in sports, with lots of empty seats in places like Birmingham or Las Vegas. Who can forget that guy in Vegas with his “rendition” of the Canadian anthem?

And yet the CFL is thinking of teaming up with the XFL! It reeks of desperation — in this case, the CFL being desperate for RedBird Capital’s cash. Again, it comes back to the old phrase “history repeating itself”.

As for the XFL, their brand has long had a reputation among football fans as a joke. This is known as the Vince McMahon league, where guys on the field wore “He Hate Me” jerseys and where the production values treated football like WWE wrestling contests. I know it’s improved since those days, but is this really a step up for the CFL?

And what happens to the traditions of the CFL — such as the rules? And the Grey Cup? If they do form a new league, they need to find a way to keep the Grey Cup as the championship trophy. That’s a big line in the sand for me there. I’m open to all kinds of changes, but if that tradition gets thrown away I will never be on board with it.

What’s scary about any CFL-XFL collaboration is that we could end up with not the best of what both leagues have to offer, but the worst, with the end result being the end of Canadian rules and Canadian players.

I can see lots of die-hard ‘Riders fans walking away and cancelling their season tickets if that happens, which then begs the question — what then is the future for the ‘Riders?

In the end my reaction, and of a lot of die-hard CFL fans, can be summed up by the popular motto of one of those U.S. states that the XFL has a team in. “Show me.” 

In unison, again, folks: “Why does the CFL have to do this?!”

 

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