It’s been a while since the Canadian Football League made news that could potentially rattle the foundations of the game in this country.
But Wednesday’s announcement of formal talks with the XFL and its backers is nothing less than that.
It’s clear that senior officials in the XFL and CFL have been communicating for months, exploring and spitballing ideas about what synergies might exist between the two leagues. This announcement tells us that things are about to get serious.
What that means at this stage is completely speculative, with anything from sharing best practices to a full-blown merger fitting the definition of “explore opportunities for alignment.”
But there are legitimate reasons to believe this is going to fundamentally change things for both leagues.
Around this time a year ago, the CFL came out with projections of enormous losses for 2020 if the pandemic prevented the league from playing. Again, this season, although most believe a partial season will be possible, the losses are expected to be heavy.
Playing a money-losing partial season in 2021 doesn’t do much for the league’s prospects beyond this year, which remain dim economically, as the pandemic’s hangover is likely to be present for years to come.
Which brings us to the XFL and its investors, who picked up that league out of bankruptcy last summer, for a planned re-launch in 2022.
Those plans have officially been put on pause, pending the result of formal talks with the CFL, which tells you how serious the two sides are.
Just as was the case almost 30 years ago when the CFL began down the road of U.S. expansion, the goal here is to tap into U.S. television money and sponsorship opportunities.
The fact that this involves Dwayne Johnson and the world-wide marketing resources associated with him makes this different.
For the XFL, they get to potentially align with the CFL’s credibility and history, its established fan bases, and its exploration into international markets.
So what can we expect? It’s impossible to say at this time, but CFL fans should brace themselves for a wave of change that could involve XFL and CFL teams playing games against each other by as soon as 2022.
Two obvious questions jump out with regard to any conversations around that possibility: What time of year would these games be played and what would the rules be?
The XFL has been a February to May league, with a 10-week regular season. The CFL has been a May to November league, with an 18-game schedule, so something’s going to have to give there.
And while the CFL game is rooted in its traditions of three downs and a 110-yard field, the XFL has played a modified version of the NFL game, with four downs and a 100-yard field.
Questions about the future of the Grey Cup and the ratio that requires every CFL team to carry 20 Canadian players won’t be far behind.
These are all things the CFL folks must have thought about before this point, so they must also be prepared to make adjustments or compromises.
There’s going to be a gigantic hue and cry from some fans and members of the media about the league selling its soul. But the truth is that if the CFL in its current form was more successful, especially in the key markets of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, this wouldn’t be necessary.
We’ve also been hearing murmurs since last summer that not all nine CFL teams are committed to playing in a negatively altered economic environment, and there are real concerns about how many are committed to a 2022 season under the status quo.
The pandemic didn’t create the league’s challenges. It just accelerated them and the CFL needs an answer.
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has spoken often about the need to change the league’s business model, to not be limited by the way things have always been done and to go boldly after new sources of revenue.
Ambrosie has the opportunity to deliver big on those promises with his XFL venture, even though it’s far too early to say where it will all land or whether it will work.