My 2022 marketing advice for the Canadian Football League (CFL)

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What’s better than football? More football. Am I right?

I think I mostly am even though I don’t watch every NFL game or every FBS college football game or the FCS playoffs. I catch what I can when I have the itch for football. And early in the summer, that itch hits. I scratch it with the Canadian Football League, the CFL.

This isn’t a post explaining all the rules of the league or how it’s different from American football. This isn’t a recap of the Grey Cup game, although I’ll talk a lot about this year’s event. This won’t be an in-depth blog post about my love of all-things-Canada or when I started watching the CFL (a decade ago!).

Is the CFL super profitable? Articles I found from five years ago painted a much rosier picture than articles I read today. The pandemic had everything to do with it. The CFL wasn’t able to play in 2020 either. From what I’ve read, the CFL depends more on in-person audience as a proportion to its overall revenue than the NFL does. The NFL has a TV deal that any other league only wishes it had.

However, per game, the CFL draws better than the MLS, the NHL and even the NBA. At more than 22,000 per contest, the CFL draws less than MLB (28k) and much less than the NFL. The CFL normally plays 18 games per team each regular season for nine teams. Other leagues play many more of course.

Yet there is still consternation aplenty. Some teams do better than others financially. There wasn’t enough scoring in 2021. Fans in Canada are converting to NFL fandom mostly. On and on and on. I’m not versed in anything that looks like a collective-bargaining agreement, and I don’t do hardcore math. However, I’m a long time content marketer, digital marketer and corporate communications professional.

I’ve got thoughts.

I’d love for the league to read this because I actually love the CFL. From Oklahoma, USA, I love the CFL. It’s an outsider’s perspective, but I think it holds up.

  1. First, don’t change the game itself.

    Don’t ******* touch it.

    It is uniquely Canadian, and therein lies its charm. Don’t go from three downs to four. In the CFL, every down is worth MORE than in American football. Don’t get rid of the rouge, the single or no-yards penalties. I like the “he who touches it last” rule for fumbles. I like the width of the field, the center line, the giant end zones. I love seeing a snap taken from the Montreal 54 yard-line.

    If the league decides to change this game in the name of competition with the NFL, it will lose. The CFL is supplementary, complementary to the NFL. It is to the NFL what the MLS is to the EPL. We can have both. The CFL’s competition is attention being given to anything else during the summer: vacations, weekends at the lake, dinners out, Netflix, whatever. It’s not the NFL.

    From a strategy perspective, what was everybody talking about after Winnipeg’s 33-25 win over Hamilton Sunday night in the 108th Grey Cup? They were talking about the decision to concede a single late in the game. The Ticats promptly marched downfield for a game-tying FG that should have been a game-winning one.

    For my taste, there is more strategy in the CFL game. The league should embrace that and talk about it.

    Also, stop complaining about any ‘lack of scoring.’ It should be difficult to score in football. As an Oklahoma guy, a Sooners fan and a watcher of all-things Big 12, let me tell you: 62-52 games are trash. They’re not nearly as entertaining as you think. One of the things I love about the NFL is that down-to-down, it’s a war. It’s a three-hour struggle. I watched a replay of the Hamilton-Montreal playoff game. It was 3-0 in the second quarter, and TSN showed Tiger-Cats on the bench gulping for air. These men were working – and they soon had their breakthrough, scoring 20 unanswered in a 23-12 win over the Alouettes.

  2. Second, air all the games in America on ESPN or somewhere. On TV, not just digital. Insist on accessibility to anybody who wants to watch it. And give us the full TSN pre-game broadcasts (not just 30 minutes) with Kate and Milt and everybody. America needs to be introduced to the greatness of play-by-play announcers Chris Cuthbert and Rod Smith, too.

    Market travel packages to see a game in Canada during the broadcasts. As I watched the Grey Cup, I noticed the huge missed opportunity as not a one commercial suggested that I as an American could see a game in person next year, presupposing that COVID-19 would allow.

    “Would you like to experience the CFL in person?” Info, details, info, details. If each stadium, each game added about 1,000 traveling Americans to the turnstiles, it would be a game-changer.

  3. Grey Cups from now on should mimic the Super Bowl in terms of program structure. They should kick-off after 5p CT on Sundays. Pregame broadcasts should start midday. There should be a pre-game show with music and what-not. We should get the anthem, player introductions, all of it.

    I want to see the halftime show and the post-game celebration, too.

    What was missing? Funny commercials. And they should be Canadian. The entire event should be one giant commercial for the Great White North.

    For the love of the beautiful maple leaf, embrace the Canadian!!

    With all that said, I watched the conference finals this year and the entire Grey Cup from pregame to end. It felt like the Super Bowl. The Canadian version. I loved the pre-game show with Stephen Lee Olsen and Jessia — and I adored the halftime show with Arkells, the Lumineers and K.Flay.

    “We’re the Arkells, and we’re going to do our best for you tonight!” Max Kerman told the audience at Tim Horton’s Field and on TV. What a refreshingly humble, likable approach to introducing your stage show.

    And they were great. The show was live. The performance was energetic and fun and it looked big. For me, this halftime show was better than the vast majority of Super Bowl halftime shows. It oozed charm.

One note about Olsen. His “What You’re Made Of” is a perfect pre-game theme, and it should be adopted permanently by the CFL. This video re-edited each year should be the opener for CFL games, just like Carrie Underwood is for NBC’s Sunday night affairs.

4. The CFL should work with the NFL or the XFL to set up exhibitions for the sake of exposure and interest. Let’s say the Toronto Argonauts came to Arrowhead to play the Kansas City Chiefs. The Argos wouldn’t necessarily be playing Mahomes, Hill and Kelce. They’d probably get a second-string group. This is not different from what British soccer clubs do when they play preseason friendlies in the States. What makes this difficult is that the CFL plays much earlier than the NFL. The CFL could still take a couple weeks off midseason for international friendlies.

Understand what the goals here are: First, these CFL teams need more people in seats. Americans are eligible to do that, you know. And they need a better TV and digital deal. On the latter, I don’t think the CFL does nearly enough to market its product.

5. The CFL needs to level up digitally and do much more storytelling. Their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, podcast and content strategy needs to be 24-7-365. And let’s get beyond cute video vignettes. Help the audience know better who the leagues stars are. I’m a big believer than folks root for people more than they do uniforms. Zach Collaros, Jeremiah Masoli, Dane Evans, Bo Levi Mitchell and McLeod Bethel-Thompson should be household names to football fans.

How root-able is Winnipeg RB Andrew Harris? Immensely!

The day’s challenge should be, “How can we win over 100 new CFL fans today?” And that should be an everyday quest.

As a digital content guy, I’d recommend stories about players and organizations in the community. I’d recommend stories teaching the history of this league, which has been around for more than a century. I’d recommend stories that reinforce the charm of its Canadian-ness. And be relentless and perseverant about it. Make a person wonder, “It’s February 18. Why am I seeing more content about the CFL?”

And to the naysayer who says, “It’s not worth it. The product is second-rate,” I say stop it. The product in these playoffs, especially the finals and the Grey Cup were tremendous. Entertaining football. Great crowds. Fantastic calls. Heck, I left the NFL game I was watching on TV to focus exclusively on Winnipeg-Saskatchewan a couple weeks ago.

6. Slight uniform and branding changes. The CFL and the maple leaf need to be bigger on the neck of the uniform, and the design of each team’s uni needs to be less like a World League of Football throwback. Hamilton’s unis are perfect. Saskatchewan, too. Toronto has it figured out, especially with the return of the helmet boat! But when Calgary does the red shoulders with white body, it looks like the WFL. The Stampeders should be red tops, white bottoms, red helmet. Road duds should be white top, white bottoms, red helmet — or red bottoms, red helmet.

Winnipeg needs to be all blue and gold up top.

The B.C. Lions need to study the Oklahoma State Cowboys to look at their combos. Figure out your top. Also, I strongly prefer the white helmets for the Lions, but you could have light and dark versions.

Ottawa is ok, I guess. And the Alouettes need to lose the current helmet design. Montreal’s North American audience needs to recognize their mark every single time. The unis from earlier in the 2010s were much closer to the mark.

7. Expansion. You can’t force expansion to communities that don’t want it, but it seems like a no-brainer to me that there would be football in Quebec City and Halifax. I am not opposed to American expansion, but I have some very specific criteria.

First, the CFL shouldn’t be in Birmingham, Alabama. Or Baltimore, Maryland. OMG.

If there were to be expansion into America, focus on the Northern states that don’t otherwise have pro sports.

  • Boise City, Idaho (Idaho Potatoes – laugh, but it would work)
  • Montana (Big Sky Mountaineers)
  • Dakota Roughnecks (Fargo or Bismarck)
  • Vermont Green
  • Augusta or Portland Lobsters (Maine)

With QC and Halifax, you’d have 16 teams. If anything, having only eight teams in the CFL creates the potential for boredom come playoff time since you know the Grey Cup matchup will be something you’ve seen before, possibly multiple times.

Keep Canadian and global players on these teams. Celebrate them, and create a pipeline from Canadian universities to the league.

In summary, I don’t think the CFL has a product problem. I don’t think the amount of scoring is an issue. I don’t think the quality or the rules are an issue. I think the pandemic sucks, and it’s got the league a bit off-track. The opportunity in my estimation is one of growth, marketing and storytelling to both draw more people to these stadiums and to set the CFL up for a much richer digital payday.

The CFL renaissance started last Sunday with the 108th Grey Cup. That was great.

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