The little-known Canadian version of American football

Published on Jul 02 2015 // Sports

On paper the sport of Canadian football, the lesser-known, much poorer, northern cousin of American football, should be struggling to exist.

Not only does it have to compete with Canada’s obsession with ice hockey, but it has the goliath that is American football’s National Football League (NFL) just across the border.

And by any measure you care to check – such as the value of TV deals, team revenues, and player salaries – Canada’s professional gridiron competition, the nine-team Canadian Football League (CFL), barely bumps the needle.

For example, annual TV revenues at the NFL total more than $5bn (£3.2bn) per year, compared with just $32m at the CFL.

Meanwhile, the annual turnover at the richest CFL club, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, was $55m in 2003, while the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys made $560m, and the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team secured $190m.

Yet with the 2015 CFL season now under way, Canadian football has actually never been in better health.

The current TV deal, first signed in 2013 and recently extended, is double the previous agreement.

And teams have seen their profits skyrocket – the Edmonton Eskimos recorded a 2014 profit of $2.8m, twice that of 2013, and it is a similar situation at other clubs.

CFL commentators, team owners and fans put the continuing success of the sport down to one central thing – a loyal core of passionate supporters.

The sports of American and Canadian football both developed in the mid-19th Century, evolving from the British game of rugby.

While the two forms of gridiron are in essence the same game, there are some key rule differences. For example, Canadian football has larger pitch measurements, and one more player per side.

Brad Humphreys, a sports economist at the University of West Virginia, who spent several years at Canada’s University of Alberta, says the CFL benefits greatly from the strong desire of Canadians to maintain a separate identity to the US.

“Canadians are acutely aware of the cultural differences [between the two countries], and acutely interested in maintaining their own separate cultural identity,” he says. “The CFL is one way they can do that.”

David Holmes, 51, a lifelong fan of Vancouver’s CFL team, the BC Lions, happily points out that the first recorded game of Canadian football took place in 1861, eight years before the first documented American football match.

He says that the Canadian game’s long history and heritage is a big part of what keeps fans coming back.

“That’s probably one of the things that carries me forward with avid support of the BC Lions,” he says.

Like many other committed fans, he adds that he caught the bug thanks to his parents taking him to games from a young age.

Mr Holmes says: “I have really, really strong memories and associations from when I was young. I collected player cards and autographs, and I’ve sort of kept up with that. I have a massive collection of them.”

He also says that Canadian football players are better athletes than their counterparts in the US.

“The athletes, I think, have to be in better shape to play the CFL game. It’s kind of a faster game than the NFL.”

At the Saskatchewan Roughriders, one of three CFL teams to be owned by their fans, a lack of local competition from other sports gives the club an advantage over its league rivals.

The club’s chairman, Wayne Morsky, says: “We’re fortunate that there are no other professional sporting teams in the province [of Saskatchewan]. There is no hockey team, no baseball team, no soccer team.”

Mr Morsky adds that his team, which is based in the city of Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, also benefits from Canada’s high level of internal migration.

“There are also a lot of expatriates who live throughout the country, particularly to the west of us,” he says. “When we are visiting in Calgary or Edmonton [in the province of Alberta], it’s close to a 50-50 split in the crowd. It’s that connection.” Source: BBC




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