Vernon Adams Jr. Asks How to Grow CFL in the U.S.A.

Montreal Pivot Vernon Adams Jr. took to Twitter a few days ago to ask how the CFL could be better marketed to audiences in the states. More than 120 replies and quote Tweets and 42 retweets were the results, many from Canadians and others from the states.

Adams retweeted three of the replies, two that focused primarily on stateside broadcasting issues, and another that recommended marketing the CFL by highlighting its players in the NCAA power-conference markets where those players made their marks in college football.

The latter included a suggestion that the CFL play preseason games in some of those cities. For example, the recommendation was made that the Alouettes play a preseason match in Oregon where Adams played his college ball.

It’s no secret that the CFL has a unique need to put butts in the seats in order to meet financial targets. Some of that pressure could be reduced if CFL broadcast rights carried a higher market value, and a partial solution could lie in greater penetration to US markets.

There is the chicken-and-the-egg problem though. Is the primary idea of a CFL invasion of the American airwaves to be designed to solidify the existing fan base by way of providing access to games, or is it more directed to growing new US interest in the CFL product?

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A number of Canadian CFL fans are unhappy that games are now exclusively on TSN in Canada, which, of course, does not have 100 percent penetration.  So, if you don’t have TSN, you are not going to be legally watching CFL games at home. The Grey Cup, the Division Finals and the Playoffs are all part of TSN’s exclusive package, so, without cable access, Canadians won’t even be watching the league’s championship game at home.

There are benefits to having one-stop shopping for CFL television. Fans do not have to look at TV listings or worry about areas where poor reception of a “local” CTV, CBC or Global station impacts the ability to see a CFL game.

Vernon Adams Jr., Montreal Alouettes – Dominick Gravel / Montreal Alouettes

While radio is an entirely different medium, every CFL host city has local radio broadcasts, virtually all of which are available worldwide online. If you are remote from a local metro area, the reception might be hard by radio as well, if not impossible. If you have a computer, you can also follow every game as it happens on CFL.ca.

However, without cable or computer access, your only hope is to have access to local area radio coverage.
Having lived my entire life in the states, I’ve been able to follow the league, one way or another, whether I lived two miles from the US-Canada border or deep in the heart of Texas. As time goes on, it’s easier to get every game.

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ESPN+ costs me $5 per month. Every game comes to me live on my smartphone, tablet and/or desktop via this account. To do this there must be an underlying cable subscription as well. In addition, SiriusXM radio channel 167 “Canada Talks” also carries virtually every game. In fact, it seems that in those few instances where 167 does not carry a game, there is some other place on XM where I will find it.

Even before the rise of the ESPN+ and SeriesXM axis, I could always find a radio broadcast, even if not with great reception, especially for the playoffs. That is, as long as I was in the northern states.

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In the states, at least, if a dedicated CFL fan wants to closely follow the league, there is not much of a need to improve broadcast access. The Grey Cup, as well as several other CFL games, are also broadcast on ESPN and/or ESPN2 television. While these channels are cable-based, and hence subscription-only, therefore also not available in 100 percent of homes, the coverage is more than sufficient.

Being a Western New York resident, I will sometimes choose to listen to local broadcasts from Hamilton or Toronto on the radio. Sometimes, to get the local flavour, I will listen to CJOB from Winnipeg or CKRN from Regina via the internet. Live in-game, pre/post-game and week-long sports broadcasting permit me to follow the league and its teams.

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If you add in blogs, newspapers, podcasts, social media and the like, there is no real barrier to my following the league. The question then is how to attract new fans to the CFL.

It is true that having the Grey Cup on CTV would put the game in a few more border-located US homes that do not have cable. That is not a large market, but it’s something.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros (8) hoists the trophy as he celebrates defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 108th CFL Grey Cup in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, December 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Other attempts to promote the CFL in the states are likely to mean directing resources away from further growing the fan base domestically in Canada. It’s likely to be harder to further crack the US market than it will be to crack, or re-crack, the markets in Toronto and Vancouver.

The “Can-Am” type games that have been played in past decades might provide some additional viewership.  Whether at the university level, professional level, or both, such games may gain some interest in the states if played in the right venues at the right time and with intelligent broadcast schedules and locations.

We should recall though, that these games gave been played in the past and have been discontinued.  That’s probably not because they drew tremendous interest. There’s been a lot of talk about rule changes, but as a CFL fan from the states, who have preferred the 3-down game for five decades, history is a factor.

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One key to my CFL sympathies is that they were set in the 1960s and 70s when the NFL was far more run-dominant. Simply, CFL 3-down football forced a wide-open game that was unfamiliar to the NFL.

Over the decades the NFL has changed.  While wider and longer fields, fewer downs, the waggle and the rouge (providing the possibility of a game-ending “rouge off”) continue to provide the CFL with unique on-field opportunities for excitement, the NFL has simply moved away from its history, becoming more CFL-like in its promotion of passing offence.

I don’t know to what degree the global initiative has increased CFL access and interest outside of the US and Canada, perhaps broadcast access in other countries would do more to promote 3-down ball internationally.

Simoni Lawrence, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power)

When it comes to other approaches, it is true that, for example, the NBA has had considerable success marketing its players. In the 1970s there was a widespread belief the association was in trouble until a few big personalities such as Julius Irving (Dr. J) and Artis Gilmore and George “The Iceman” Gervin came into the league with the ABA merger.

Then, the attention brought by NCAA super-stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, when they went to the historically-relevant Lakers and Celtics franchises, set the association back on more solid footing.
Does the CFL have players and personalities it could similarly market in the states? I’m not sure.

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Johnny Manziel might have been that kind of player. However, he and others who are viewed similarly often are greeted with lots of skepticism by CFL fans, not only because we resent the implication by some that these attempts make us look like a cast-off league, but also because so often these situations seem to lead to busts both on and off the field.

It’s an interesting topic, and a lot more can, and no doubt, will be said about it.

I, for one, appreciate Big Play Adams helping to keep the discussion alive.

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1 thought on “Vernon Adams Jr. Asks How to Grow CFL in the U.S.A.”

  1. I enjoy watching CFL games when they are on ESPN, but I only find out there’s a game on if I flip channels. They only promote playoff games.

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