It seems like every year at around this time, the Canadian Football League hits the self-destruct button and sets off on a path of negativity, at least as far as its fanbase is concerned.
In 2021, it was a series of chats with the new owners of the XFL that set off the Twittersphere with howls of indignation, incredulous and downright pissed offended that the CFL would even consider a merger with those guys because of what it might mean for Canada’s game.
There were major concerns being expressed on a daily basis about how adopting XFL rules, reducing the size of the field, and generally tweaking the game would Americanise the CFL, which would result in a loss of popularity for the game in Canada.
And the thing that got most people’s backs up was the possibility of going to four downs. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the vast majority of fans not being able to stomach any further merger talks.
At the time, the CFL was all about pushing a specific narrative about how discussing a possible merger with the XFL was to, “collaborate, innovate, and grow the game of football.”
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie was at the forefront of those talks saying the reason was, “to grow the game, engage fans in new ways, and reach new audiences.”
In the end, however, the discussions fizzled out and the CFL got on with season 2021, albeit an abbreviated version because of COVID-19.
That wasn’t the first time either as the league went through similar self-induced pain via its short-lived expansion into the U-S in the 1990s.
Fast forward to now, and here we go again. The CFL, and Ambrosie in particular, are smack dab right back in the middle of another controversy with the four downs issue raising, what the fanbase would call, its ugly head. And again, there is no one else to blame but the CFL itself.
It started with an unconfirmed report by Sportsnet’s Arash Madani that the league’s new data and technology partner Genius Sports had recommended that the CFL should consider going to four downs. The main reason being it would make the league more marketable, presumably in the States, and therefore potentially increase its revenues.
Ambrosie has been asked repeatedly if, in fact, this is true, and if so, what he thinks about it. But rather than coming out and stating categorically that no, the CFL will not be changing the three downs rule, he has added more fuel to the fire by skirting the issue.
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Yes, he has sort of answered it, but in such a way that it is still as clear as mud.
“We are looking at it at the highest level. Fun, fast, entertaining football, that’s what we want to have,” Ambrosie told the Sportscage in Regina regarding the board of governors next meeting. “The conversation we’re going to have is how do we take this game of ours and how do we massage it? What do we change?”
For their part, Genius Sports have refuted reports that they are campaigning to get the CFL to go to four downs.
They told CHQR radio in Calgary that they, “made no suggestions to the CFL on changes to gameplay including any rule changes. Our focus is on helping to drive audience growth, fan engagement and innovation with the CFL and our partners.”
One of the things that has not been talked about too much, if at all, is just how much, or little, Genius Sports actually knows about Canadian football.
In the ‘About Us’ section on their website, they describe themselves in part as, “the official data, technology and commercial partner that powers the global ecosystem connecting sports, betting and media. Our mission is to champion a more sustainable sports data ecosystem that benefits all parties – from the rights-holder all the way through to the fan. We are the trusted partner to over 400 sports organizations globally.”
The London-based company also says it has offices in 11 locations on six continents, including New York, Shanghai and Sydney. Oddly enough, they don’t have an office in either Toronto or Vancouver.
A search of their website also turns up information about their employees who, for the most part, appear to be younger folks as one might expect would be the case. It begs the question then – how extensive is their knowledge of the CFL?
Do any of them know what three downs is? Do they know why there is such a brouhaha over the mere suggestion that the CFL should consider shifting to four downs? Do any of them have any idea about the rules and nuances that make the game unique? Do they have a clue about the game’s history?
It’s likely that someone at Genius Sports probably did some research on the CFL when they were considering their business partnership, but given where they’re based, and the fact that most of them are not old enough to know much about the history of the Canadian game, the answer to most, if not all, of those questions is most likely not a whole heck of a lot.
It is all well and good for the CFL to cozy up to an international brand in an effort to grow its revenues, that’s business, but by the same token, it is also incumbent upon the league to make sure that its business partners have an inkling of what they are dealing with in order to achieve successful outcomes.
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