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I admit it: I’m having dreams of CFL USA 2.0. There’s this one website I visit a few times a year in hopes that something new will be posted to what is currently a very dense homepage and little more. Alas, its forums haven’t seen a new comment since June; its content is without update, the latest story grousing about the announcement that the city’s NFL team is gone.
That site is StLRamsCFL.com and, sadly, nothing has changed on it since last summer.

I know, CFL fans, I know. Expansion to the US was tried in the 1990s and was a universally accepted disaster; to expect the Canadian league to gamble thusly again is nothing but idle fantasy. I have to admit that it’s a daydream that’ll never come to pass, like the return of the Montreal Expos or Vancouver Grizzlies, but it’s a nice daydream and thanks to The Grueling Truth, I have an outlet.

So let me go through the grieving process…

Throughout North American football history, we’ve been taught by guys like this that, in the business world, thinking big – yooge, even – is good. And that the urge for franchise owners in any league to rake in some quick cash simply through expansion fees is fatal.

The USFL of the 1980s is the cautionary tale that the CFL brain trust didn’t pay attention to in the mid-1990s. Before this guy came along to apply the euthanasia to the flailing league, club finances by the end of season two were *dependent* on expansion fees for profit. Soon, teams like the San Antonio Gunslingers approached player payroll like a low-level European basketball club: One might get paid on time, one might get paid late, one might not get paid at all.

And throwing so many new teams into the mix so rapidly – the USFL expanded from 12 teams to 18 from 1983 to 1984 – certainly diluted the already second-level talent pool. What few dozen household names the USFL could claim suddenly seemed sporadic in a way-too-large 18-team league. In the CFL USA expert, the eight-team league added three new franchises and restructured divisions for the 1994 season.

But we can learn from sports history, too, can’t we? The grueling truth is that the CFL could use a 10th team for scheduling purposes and, while the prospects for putting a CFL franchise in Halifax or Moncton seem better than ever. (On the other hand, given the on- and off-field fortunes of the Toronto Argonauts over the past few seasons, we may yet see a CFL of eight teams sans Toronto before we get the Atlantic Canada franchise – but not for lack of talent.)

When the CFL first tried to US market in 1993, just one franchise was added: the Sacramento Gold Miners. This was quite a unique opportunity for the CFL, as Sacramento already boasted a stadium, a fanbase, a local TV audience and even remnants of a roster from the defunct Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football. Such a situation is unlikely ever to be repeated in top-level professional football, but a U.S. city such as St. Louis has the same advantage that a Moncton does: A stadium and fandom ready for pro football.

In their inaugural CFL season of 1993, the Sacramento Gold Miners drew nearly 17,000 a game (against a then-average attendance of right around 20,000 in the Canadian markets). The city of Baltimore, armed with a “F*** you, NFL” attitude, drew well more for Stallions games; the now-defunct CFL team remains a cherished part of Baltimore football lore and might still exist if not for the hastily-arranged creation of the Ravens.

So let’s assume an American city, ripe from getting dissed by the NFL like St. Louis or Oakland agrees in principle to host a CFL team. The infrastructure is there, as are (one would hope) enough fans still in town to be attracted to the CFL game, although Oakland (pop. approx.. 400,000) or St. Louis (315,000) would be the smallest home markets in the CFL, even in a 10-team league including Halifax.

In fact, market size is at the heart of the highest hurdle for a CFL expansion in to the US. In order to expand that smallish market size (and therefore profit), the American franchise owner will naturally turn to TV and video product. As we’ve all been told ad nauseum, in the US, TV contracts run American sports right now. The NFL is in the middle of a $26 billion deal for TV rights; legally shaky or not, one would imagine a sizable lawsuit and relentless legal machinations to keep CFL game broadcasts out of the team’s own home market. Whether or not the Rams’ move to Los Angeles was fair to St. Louis citizens, we’re now gonna force them to watch the Kansas City Chiefs, like the rest of the Missouri/Kansas market area!

The official relationship between the NFL and CFL has fluctuated over the years; it’s no coincidence that this relationship hit a nadir with the CFL USA expansion in the mid-1990s. With the ever-growing popularity of the NFL in Canada, the CFL is often in a submissive position in relation to its southern counterpart. CFL league officials are certainly happy with the current TV deal with ESPN and an otherwise laissez-faire attitude.

In any case, TV and the big bad NFL apply daggers to the beautiful dream of CFL USA 2.0, politics finishes it off.

During the 1990s experiment, doom was brought upon all the American CFL markets except Baltimore due to the CFL’s capitulation to American franchise owners’ demands. These included both Canadian football rules themselves (placement of goalposts, the 110-yard field) and Canadian roster requirements. In the end, this distortion designed to help the US-baseed CFL teams flourish, actually stifled the originality of the Canadian game – and thus its potential appeal to all but the perfect storm of American markets. Take away the interesting derivations in the rules, and all you’ve got is second-tier American players in what looks like minor-league football.

This time around, a US-based CFL franchise would have to conform its field of play to Canadian rules – and look, the extant St. Louis and Oakland facilities could give up a bit of seating area for essentially an experiment.  Also, those rosters…

Um, yeah. Current US law would not allow any business enterprise in the U.S. to operate with the Canadian/U.S. citizen ratio currently required of CFL teams. And while a legal exception could certainly be made for a single business enterprise (hey, folks, it happens all the time among the privileged classes), can you imagine the NFL, with its lobbying power going all the way to Washington, D.C., allowing such an exception to be enacted? With this guy at the very top, proclaiming that the prevention of a CFL franchise in the US will save millions of American jobs? Not likely, and probably not financially worth the headache.

Yeah, on second thought, stay in Canada. It’s probably better there, anyway.

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Os Davis has been a sportswriter for [redacted] years, covering and enjoying way too much pro football (American and Canadian), basketball (NBA and international), World Cup soccer and cricket in turn. Basically, if it's a ball game and Os has a forum, he'll write about it. Os is of the opinion that advanced stastical metrics are awesome, that the addition of offensive lines to fantasy football is absolutely necessary and that the Los Angeles Lakers shall rise again. He is firmly against price-gouging of fans, Americans pooh-poohing CFL football and that @#@#$@#$ing Washington football team's name. Os currently appears on way too many podcasts, co-hosting the Rouge, White & Blue Fantasy Football Podcast, The Truth About Fantasy Football Podcast, the CFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show and the L.A. Rams 2.0 Weekly Show -- plus often the NFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show.
  • Adam Hark

    I love this article, and even more so love the fact that there is another American out there that loves the CFL, values its distinct nature, and wishes the 90’s experiment had been handled differently.

    That said, I do not agree with everything in here. I would like to see the CFL come back, and I think it could be successful with a couple of learned lessons in mind:

    1) It cannot go where an NFL market already is, *or recently was*. The first part of that is probably obvious, but the second part is the lesson we learned from Baltimore. Even in a place where the CFL team has an outstanding run and the fan base that comes with it, it will always be seen as mitigating that deeper emptiness and susceptible to the return of an NFL franchise. For this reason (in addition to one I’ll list below in a moment), I think St. Louis is the wrong place to try again.

    2) It can make it in the U.S., but it still needs to be somewhat close to Canada. Stretching to far off places extends an already strained connection between U.S. and American cities. Places like Sacramento, San Antonio, and, my God, Shreveport, were too far afield for the fans to have any sentiment toward the cities of their opposition. Who could get excited about a Calgary vs. Shreveport matchup?! Not to mention, any hope of fans (from either side) going to away games was pretty much out of the question. An ideal American city for a CFL expansion team will be one that is reasonably within reach of at least one or more Canadian city with a CFL team, or its television viewing market. NFL fans from southern Ontario have been significantly contributing to the Buffalo Bulls attendance numbers for years, and that is an example that should be noted for prospective CFL placement in the U.S.

    3) Expansion should be small scale, at least until it proves successful. Probably the biggest blunder of the CFL 90’s experiment was trying to do so much, so fast. Creating an entire CFL South Division was unnecessary and a blunder. Any future attempt should pick a single city, or at most two, and do it right.

    My suggestion would be Columbus, Ohio. It has just shy of 800,000 residents in the city itself, and past two million in its metro area. It supports two major league sports teams – MLS’s Columbus Crew and NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets – both of which demonstrate a local appeal of traditionally internationally popular sports. It does not have and never has had an NFL team; and while evenly spaced between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns, most of Columbus’s football appetite is met by its hometown college team, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Incidentally, the presence of the Buckeyes also provides the infrastructure necessary to give the CFL team a ready-made home (just like the Montreal Alouettes play in Pervical Molson Stadium on the campus of McGill University). To the extent that Columbus’s locals don’t fill the seats, the city is a mere 3.5 hour drive from Windsor, Ontario, one of Canada’s 25 most populous cities and the home of 200,000+ Canadians with no local CFL team to root for (and nearest one not a whole lot closer at 3 hours away in Hamilton).

  • Adam Hark

    Oh, and by the way, I very much disagree that bringing back the Montreal Expos is “a daydream that’ll never come to pass.” In the not too distant future, the MLB will expand to 32 teams, allowing for eight four-team divisions, which will be a big improvement for scheduling. When that happens, expect to see Montreal housing one of those two teams.

    The dream is very much alive: http://www.montrealbaseballproject.com/en/