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CFL set to launch revamped expansion push in Atlantic Canada

Randy Ambrosie Randy Ambrosie - The Canadian Press

By now we’re all familiar with the Canadian Football League’s desire to expand its footprint with a 10th franchise located in Atlantic Canada.

It’s an idea that first gained traction back in the early 1980s, then was brought back to life in 2016 by a group of businessmen located in other parts of the country, known first as Maritime Football Limited and then Schooner Sports and Entertainment (SSE).

Once again, as was the case four decades ago, the construction of a suitable stadium was the one unsolvable hurdle.

That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Every conversation about CFL expansion of any kind always starts and ends with a stadium, since there’s nowhere in the country just sitting with a CFL-ready stadium waiting for a team.

Outdoor stadium construction in Canada is a very difficult business. It almost always requires some kind of business catalyst or significant partnership to get it done, plus a government willing to foot a large portion of the bill and a significant degree of the risk.

Those kinds of asks are often successful in the United States. But in Canada, most governments cringe at the notion of spending public tax dollars to support professional sports enterprises.

That’s where these things tend to die.

The last time around, SSE began with a project estimated to cost $180 million before scaling it back to $130 million to improve the financing. Halifax Regional Council passed a motion for a conditional $20 million contribution in December of 2019, three months before COVID-19 measures began.

But given that a site had not even been selected for the project, it’s hard to know if it ever stood a real chance ­– even before the pandemic removed it from the city’s agenda. SSE is no longer involved in pursuing a team for Atlantic Canada.

That brings us to today and the CFL’s renewed effort to establish a 10th team, which is expected to get underway in earnest this spring.

The differences from the previous approach are significant, starting with the fact it does not include a permanent stadium construction project. Instead, it proposes using what’s been called a “temporary-permanent” stadium model, similar to what the Lions used as their home during the 2010 and 2011 seasons while B.C. Place was undergoing renovation. The cost of that 27,000-seat stadium at the time was reported to be $14.4 million.

The idea is that a temporary, low-cost stadium allows a different price point for establishing a team, with the idea being that a permanent facility would eventually follow.

While the concept may be new, it’s not all that far removed from when Major League Baseball awarded teams to Montreal and Toronto in the 1960s and 70s, respectfully, aware their respective stadiums were temporary homes that would have to be replaced by modern facilities.  

The CFL wants to build its expansion model around a similar stadium concept, then enter the market to pitch its concept to local leaders and interested parties. If enough wherewithal exists at the local level, the plan can proceed. If it doesn’t, it will stop.

The Atlantic Canadian expansion movement has always lacked a local champion and the commitment of local private dollars, but that has to be the foundation this time around.

Another benefit of a temporary-permanent stadium model is that it would allow a team to get up and running in relatively short order – perhaps two to three years, as opposed to six or seven.

That’s important because there is some fatigue – both locally and nationally – setting in on this narrative. People want to see it happen or have the league move on.

There are plenty of reasons for the CFL to want to make this happen, besides completing the national map and establishing a team in a market with some promising demographics.

By growing its number of teams by 11 per cent, the league will produce 25 per cent more game content over the course of a season, going from four games most weeks to five. The balanced schedule will get rid of exceptionally long or short off periods for teams and reduce or eliminate bye weeks, meaning the Grey Cup could be played in early November without moving up the start of the season.

Then there is the creation of two five-team divisions and the momentum that comes with growth.

The CFL wants this to happen. And with its largest obstacle potentially removed from the process, it needs to quickly establish whether it can convert the years of talk and annual Touchdown Atlantic games into the reality of a 10th franchise. If it’s not going to happen, then let’s all accept it and move on.

Canadian football in Atlantic Canada can be an annual event or it can become part of local culture.

Atlantic Canadians will get to decide.