The State of the CFL

There is still a hint of giddiness reverberating through the city of Winnipeg in the wake of their unexpected trouncing of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last week to win the Grey Cup. After decades of pain and disappointment, all is finally well in Bomberville. “Hopefully it won’t take 29 years to win our next one” people joke. But will the CFL be around in 29 years?

CFL attendance dropped for the 5th year in a row in 2019. Regular season attendance this year was at the lowest level since 2001 — the year before the Ottawa franchise was reborn as the Renegades. 2001 marked the end of a grim 5 year period for the 8 team league that began with the Ottawa Rough Riders folding and the Montreal Alouettes drawing less than 10,000 fans per game.

There is much more stability in the league than in the 90s and 00s, which is good, but there are problems too. Montreal, after drawing respectable attendance during the reign of Anthony Calvillo, has sagged to the mid-17,000s the past two years. Likewise, BC, a team that averaged 30,000 people per game from 2005 to 2014, only pulled in 17803 this year. But it’s Toronto that is really concerning. The Argonauts average attendance has been trending down for 12 years, from over 30,000 people per game to a pathetic 12,493 in 2019. (Note: all these attendance figures I’m quoting are for regular-season games only.) The two Grey Cups they won along the way did not help.

Perhaps Pinball Clemons can help renew interest in the team, but it will be a challenge, especially with the Raptors winning the NBA title last season. Not because the Raptors and Argos directly compete for fans, but because it reinforces the notion that Toronto sports fans have that they are a top-tier sports city. When it comes to football, nothing less than an NFL franchise will do for those arrogant jerks.

If the Argos can’t get their act together they will not last. Can the CFL survive without the Argos? It’s a question that has been asked many times. The core fan base in most of the Western cities is relatively strong, Hamilton has stabilized and Ottawa is not doing too badly. The Atlantic Schooners joining the league, if they can ever get their stadium situation figured out, would be a huge boost and would make the league a true coast-to-coast national league.

The question is, will the Toronto-based sports channels cover the league if there is no team in Raptor-land? What will happen to ad revenue and sponsorship deals? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

At least there is optimism in Bomber-land. The team will inevitably change in the off-season, but the fans are happy and many of the players and coaches seem to genuinely like the organization. It’s up to Prez. Wade Miller and GM Kyle Walters to ensure this momentum carries over into 2020 with as little disruption as possible by securing the key pieces of the organization. If they can do that, we might see a nice bump in fan support next year.

An increase in attendance is by no means guaranteed. There is some evidence of increased attendance the year of a Grey Cup win, but little of a Grey Cup bounce the year after a win.

Excluding the 1995 Grey Cup win by the Baltimore Stallions (remember them?) who folded along with the other American teams the following year, attendance only increased 20 of the 38 years since 1980. Taking the average of the increases and decreases in attendance for the Grey Cup champs across all those years, one can only expect 100 additional bums in the seats per game the following year.

That number, however, is skewed by the 1981 Eskimos who finished up a 5 year dynasty of grey cup wins with an increase of 13,007 tickets per game over the previous year, recording an all-time high attendance of close to 60,000 people per game. Remove that outlier and the average ‘average’ attendance actually drops by 248 people the year after a Grey Cup win.

That probably won’t be the case here. The Bomber’s success was so unexpected that the organization actually had their worst attendance numbers in 13 years in 2019. How can it NOT increase? It’s a lot easier to buy a ticket when the pain and disappointment are gone.


photo credit: Carol Harrison

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