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First & 10 | CFL x XFL talks

As bombshells go, this week’s announcement of the Canadian Football League entering into talks with the XFL on a ‘collaboration to grow the game’ didn’t just shake up the neighbourhood a teeny-tiny bit.

No, a bombshell potentially this big – and all the accompanying speculation linked to it – cracked foundations and broke windows all across the CFL map.

It also had fans either ready to gather an angry mob around commissioner Randy Ambrosie or eager to embrace Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his XFL consortium.

And so, somewhat understandably, right now there is no middle ground on where fans stand on this.

The day of the announcement I had the chance to speak to Winnipeg Blue Bombers President and CEO Wade Miller and, in case you missed it, we put together an abridged Q&A-style piece for bluebombers.com.

In that piece I mention the initial thumbs-down reaction to the announcement from ‘CFL purists’ – a term one reader suggested had negative connotations.

Just for the record, I’m a ‘CFL purist’ and, like many of you, I’m concerned about what this collaboration could mean for our game. I worry about losing all those aspects that make the three-down version so exciting – from the wider field, to all the unique rules, to the Canadian player ratio. And, having chronicled the CFL’s disastrous U.S. expansion in the mid-1990s during my days at The Winnipeg Sun, it’s easy to be cynical about the merits of any kind of cross-border association again.

At the same time, there’s also a danger in us CFL purists covering our eyes and ears and leaning on nostalgia to suggest the league’s return this year serving the cure-all to some of its problems.

Look, it would be a truly wonderful story that when the CFL got back to work the stands were full each week, that sponsors/advertisers began writing big, fat cheques again and that a new stadium could be funded and built in Halifax to give league its 10th franchise and coveted coast-to-coast footprint.

Maybe that can happen slowly over time, and that the diehards who are there rain and shine each week would be joined by new fans, that advertisers would find benefits in supporting a Canadian institution that has survived so much and seen 107 Grey Cups awarded.

Still, as much as we all chose to remember the full houses at the Labour Day Classics or the Banjo Bowls and those great crowds at Grey Cup games, there are also those perfect summer nights in Toronto when the Bombers played in front of an announced crowd of 12,072 – ‘announced’ being the key word here. The game has been a hard sell in Canada’s largest market for decades and has also lost fans in Vancouver and Montreal.

All that was before the pandemic, too, a devastating event that not only resulted in the loss of the 2020 season, but caused teams to suffer a financial bloodbath.

Over the last year Ambrosie and the bosses of the nine member clubs have spoken about using this past year to refocus, reorganize and examine ways to make the CFL stronger. All options were on the table, they said. That included, pre-Covid, discussions about starting the season earlier and having the Grey Cup played before the last Sunday in November, as has long been the tradition.

Look, I want to draw a line in the sand here, too. I really do. I want to make sure the CFL doesn’t compromise and doesn’t sell its soul in these chats with the XFL. And I also want, one day, for my future grandkids to enjoy a Blue Bomber game as much as I did the first time my dad took me to old Winnipeg Stadium.

Granted, it should be said I’m also not part of the key demographic the CFL desperately needs to attract, either. I’m all in, whether it’s the home opener, a Banjo Bowl, or an October game against Ottawa. I’m also an old newspaper guy who grew up in a house with three stations on the tube and with Bombers games often blacked out locally.

Still, I can also tell you that my sons – one 19, the other 22 – asked more questions in the last few days about the XFL talks and what they might lead to than anything any team did in CFL free agency. Diehard sports fans, they get their news from Twitter and Instagram, from YouTube channels and podcasts. That hardly makes them a focus group, but it is telling.

All of this is to say there is no magic wand to wave and make everything in the CFL’s world right again. But if we can agree that every stone must be turned to examine how to keep the nine franchises operational then, from this perch, that must include having conversations with The Rock and his crew.

In the meantime, let’s get more needles in arms and look forward to 2021.

More on the CFL-XFL conversation and other notes and quotes in our weekly edition of First & 10…

1. Let’s be real here: if the XFL was still fronted by Vince McMahon, or the current consortium didn’t include The Rock, would there be this much fascination about a possible collaboration?

Think about this – when The Rock posted this message on Instagram this week it showed up in the feed of 223 million followers.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by therock (@therock)

 

Consider that number for a moment and the power of his brand not just in the sporting and entertainment world, but globally. It could be said that alone makes the chance for the CFL to sit down with the man and exchange ideas worth having.

“(The Rock) has brand… right now I’m worried about the season,” Bombers QB Zach Collaros told TSN’s Matthew Sciantti. “We’re 10 week’s out from reporting to camp. Not sure what’s going on.”

2. I had the chance this week to record our latest in a series of Zoom chats with Bombers offensive lineman Pat Neufeld. (Previously featuring Collaros and the legendary Bob Irving).

A Canadian and a nine-year CFL vet, I asked Neufeld for his take on the CFL-XFL news.

“I love the CFL. I’ve been a fan my entire life,” he said. “I love the tradition and the history of the league. But, also, after having been in the league for so long I understand some of the struggles the league is now facing because of this whole pandemic.

“Part of me really wants to be able to preserve the traditional things of the CFL – the field size, the motion, all the things that make the league unique like the rouge, where the goal posts are in the end zone. Obviously I have no idea what the discussions are, but any time a CFL player hears anything about American football they start thinking about American rules.

“I also understand that if this partnership can be beneficial financially and spread our game and get more eyes on our game, that’s a great thing, too. I’m all for that.

“I heard Wade Miller speak on this and Commissioner Ambrosie talk about how well The Rock and his partner Dany Garcia deal with marketing… that’s such a huge part of this league and probably the biggest obstacle the league has faced in being able to market to the younger generation.

“Hopefully this can be a step in that direction that gets younger people or just a wider audience more involved in our league.”

That Zoom call recording with Neufeld, FYI, should be posted on our website sometime next week.

3. One more on this topic…

Good read from Steve Simmons of Postmedia on the CFL-XFL talks.

In it, he asks a question I think is key:

Pandemic aside, the sporting world is changing rapidly. People aren’t paying for tickets as much as they used to. People aren’t watching on traditional television. The world wants to watch a football game, a movie, answer trivia questions and play cards with their friends all at the very same time.

How do you turn that into a CFL fan? How do you take the new requirements for gambling on just about everything and make it applicable to Canadian football?”

4. Seeing as the Brier is unfolding in Calgary, a cool trivia question served up by Joe Pascucci: which former Blue Bomber curled in the Brier, the national men’s curling championship?

Answer: Gord Paterson. A receiver with the Bombers from 1974-79 after a career with the Manitoba Bisons, Paterson represented Manitoba at the 1983 Brier as a member of Lloyd Gunnlaugson’s rink.

5. Not sure why so many people get bent out of shape about these ‘Power Rankings’, especially those that are put together in March. After all, consider where the Bombers would have been ranked prior to the start of the 2019 playoffs.

But here you go, courtesy CFL.ca.

6. This week’s shameless plug… while conducting interviews over the course of the last few months I’d occasionally as a Bomber player if they could reminisce about their most memorable game.

Some of the answers were fascinating and we turned it into a series.

One of the latest we posted this week featured Thiadric Hansen and includes the previously untold story of his connection with his grandfather, Eckart, who passed away after the 2019 Grey Cup.

Check that out here.

7. If you watched the NBA All-Star game last weekend raise your hand if if you were more interested in the skills event, the 3-point challenge and the slam dunk competition more than the game.

I certainly was.

The CFL used to have an All-Star game with the last one held in 1988. I can also recall an All-Pro Countdown/CFL Superstars segment that used to run on CFL telecasts on CBC/CTV in the late 1970s. I can remember Dieter Brock of the Bombers rifling passes into a net on the back of a moving golf cart and taking on all comers in an arm-wrestling event.

Nobody asked me, but I’m all in for a return of that.

8. FYI: Bud Grant never ceases to amaze me. He’s on this list at #5 on the NFL’s oldest living players.

9. Another batch of Grey Cup games is now available on the CFL’s Grey Cup portal with this collection from the 1980s – including the Winnipeg wins in 1984 and 1988.

Worth noting: in the Bombers win in 1984 over Hamilton they trailed the Tiger-Cats 14-0 early before out-scoring their rivals 47-3 in the final three quarters.

And in the 1988 game – a 22-21 win over the B.C. Lions – the Bombers won the turnover ratio 5-0.

10. And, finally, maybe it’s because it’s been so long since we’ve even seen a Bomber game – let alone a practice – but seeing this in the last couple of days was encouraging.