There is no Grey Cup Week this year, which is at least good news for the livers of the nation.
But that is pretty much it for the good news in the short term. This is the one week on the Canadian Football League calendar where it can feel unashamedly good about itself, where thousands of people descend upon a particular town and declare their CFL fandom in a riot of colours and costumes and novelty hats. I’ve covered the last four Grey Cups, plus attended a couple in the stands, which probably means I’ve seen fewer in person than most people who attend Grey Cup Week. They are not screwing around.
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The CFL is trying to recapture a little of that zest this week by holding virtual events for both the public and media. One can’t blame them for trying, although it has been a long time coming. When the league officially pressed the delete button on the 2020 season in mid-August, commissioner Randy Ambrosie vowed that the CFL would use the spare time to embark on a bid to attract new fans, to build inroads in the communities that don’t have much interest in Canadian football. Three months later, it’s hard to identify any outreach made under league auspices before this week. The big initiative, Grey Cup Fan Base, where you could have your name chiselled onto a trophy platform for a steep fee, was explicitly designed to appeal to people who already love the CFL. There are obvious logistical challenges to conducting a marketing campaign amid a pandemic, and that alone might explain the silence from the league in recent months, but that doesn’t help the end result: That the CFL has disappeared from public view for a long stretch even though there were valid questions about its long-term sustainability before the pandemic hit.
Ambrosie has been able to spin a positive story out of recent news on the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the arrival of which would give the CFL a much better chance of having fans in the stands for at least some part of the 2021 season and eliminate the sorry spectacle of 2020, where the league’s nine teams ended up being one of the very few pro sports organizations on this continent to give up on playing altogether.
But even if Ambrosie’s rosy picture on 2021 comes to pass, with vaccines approved and distributed, and public health officials and governments comfortable with the idea of large gatherings in football stadiums by next summer, it will be some time before it is clear what the pandemic has wrought on the CFL. Ambrosie had pinned much of his hopes for the future success of the league on a global expansion that would see players recruited from around the world and, eventually, interest in those regions that would be grown because their local heroes were achieving football success on frosty Canadian fields. It’s always been a plan that was somewhere between properly ambitious and drunkenly ambitious, but it was very much in its infancy when the CFL was shuttered. Whatever momentum Ambrosie had created by hustling deals with football federations from Mexico to Japan will have been slowed considerably by the league shutdown. And will it make sense to put effort and resources back into those global growth goals when there will be plenty of damage to repair at home?
When the Grey Cup was held last year at this time in Calgary, the challenges facing the league were clear. They had a loyal core fan base, much of it in the Prairies and much of it skewing toward the older age brackets. They had sagging interest in the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver markets, with the league unable to find a suitable owner for the Alouettes and the Lions’ owner unable to find someone willing to meet his selling price. In the year since, the Als were sold to a couple of Ontario businessman who literally found out the team was available at a Grey Cup party and the long-time owner of the Lions, David Braley, passed away, leaving that franchise still in search of new ownership. The Argonauts brought in a new coach and franchise quarterback in what feels like the eleventy-fifth attempt to revive interest in the team in Toronto. And they brought back the old Boatmen logo, in case that was the thing holding them back all this time.
How much will the CFL’s extended layoff damage its support in those markets where support was already waning? NHL hockey and MLS soccer returned to those cities, while not necessarily in those cities, while Toronto also had its NBA and MLB teams both return and make the playoffs. All those teams will be back and playing their 2021 campaigns, whatever they might look like, before the CFL returns. One of the oft-cited reasons for the CFL’s malaise in the big markets is one of competition: too many options for dollars and eyeballs, and the CFL has been squeezed out over time. But what happens in those same places after the CFL decides to remove itself of its own accord? That’s the big question of the Grey Cup Week that wasn’t. Even if no one knows the answer.