2005 CFL Season Review

Overall the CFL stayed the course in 2005, continuing its phenomenal increases in popularity on television and steady attendance growth. Sponsorship increased, the Grey Cup was a success in one of Canada’s largest cities and the on-field product continued to be competitive. A detailed breakdown of three areas encapsulating the CFL follows.

(Warning: Long)

The Game

The CFL ended the year with a Grey Cup that left many fans on the edge of their seats. During the regular season, competitiveness was about the same in 2005, with a drop in Average Margin of Victory of about 2.5 points per game to 12.5 points. This is the lowest it has been since 2001, which at 10 points per game was the most competitive the CFL was in the past 20 years. Points scored per game stayed at the same mark as recent years at about 53 points per game.

Of concern are the continued discrepancies between the upper and lower echelons of the league. Ottawa continued to struggle on the field, despite showing some promise, and the Renegades seem to carry the Rough Rider curse on them still. Hamilton continued it’s up and down performance, having a down year. Unable to string together back to back better than .500 years is a symptom of something.

Winnipeg took a step backwards in 2005, ending the year by firing Coach Jim Daley. Looking at the similarities of these situations and the consistency of it reoccurring can’t help one to believe that small market teams can’t compete.

Saskatchewan underperformed, ending the season at its usual 9 and 9 record. For the ‘Riders the problem does not seem to be a lack of spending on talent, with more depth available than in previous years. However certain key positions they are unable to put players on the field that compete with the talent in the rest of the league. The rumblings from ‘Rider Home Office is that they are going after a QB, with Kerry Joseph a strong possibility and Casey Printers a long shot. Again the ‘Riders will end up with a QB developed somewhere else. When will the ‘Riders develop there own great quarterback? Even Ron Lancaster came from Ottawa.

Calgary rebounded in 2005 with new ownership and coaching staff. Finishing second in the west, losing the semi-final to the eventual Grey Cup champs shows promise for the future.

The perennial favourites, Montreal, Toronto, British Columbia, and Edmonton all had strong years. Montreal and B.C. had strong and weak periods during the season, with Montreal riding their end of year high to the Grey Cup while the Lions late slump after an 11-0 start ended up costing them a berth in a home town championship game. Toronto continued to be strong with an aging team, failing against many picks to repeat as champions. Edmonton on the other hand had an average year until a late season trade brought them some offensive help in a running back and OL that they sorely needed, helping them become 2005 Grey Cup champs, although not in an impressive fashion.

The issue with the league competitiveness is not easily solved. However the league will not continue its growth patterns (and eventually plateau without major fallbacks in attendance and TV ratings) without more balance in the league. Problems with one franchise can easily extend to others, especially community owned teams, when reserves are not built up and poor records extend for years. The same teams having strong seasons and competing in the Grey Cup year after year brings apathy and disinterest across the country as evidenced by the declining Grey Cup TV ratings for 2005 compared to 2002 and 2003 when the same teams competed. It is only a nine-team league; some variety will only strengthen the league.

Officiating improved in its consistency in 2005 if not in its problems. A lot of the problem it has with fan criticism comes from the fact that the officials like to make strange calls which are not enforced frequently. Some of this goes to the rules committee which should review these rules and adjust how they are handled. While better explanations of the calls by the head official have helped, especially controversial ones were unfortunately not explained or explained poorly. Even releases to the media after games explaining calls only open up all kinds of questions. Is the answer instant replays? Implementing replays for the 2006 season seems to be the goal. I for one don’t believe instant replays will save CFL officiating from any criticism and may open it up to more. If they implement an all play review system like NCAA college football, they expect the game to be slowed. Also of concern is if less than the 81 regular season games are broadcast on TV; will teams playing in those games be out of luck? If so, that is a definite disadvantage to Saskatchewan and Winnipeg who usually represent a majority of the teams which have games excluded from broadcast.

The Coverage

Media coverage in 2005 was about the same as previous years. While the CFL’s exposure on media has grown since the early 1990’s in terms of sports networks, it still is the poor cousin when it comes to anything else. It is common to have highlights of a single CFL game not lead off the sports on any channel as soon as NHL exhibition games are available. Sometimes the CFL gets bumped so far down in the program; highlights aren’t shown until the second half-hour.

TSN’s game coverage continued its last five year tradition of strong support. Matt Dunnigan returning the analyst desk after a year coaching stint for the Stampeders helped bring some balance to the set. However the set is a little cramped. The last couple years it looks like they shoved a couple desks together trying to make it all fit. I don’t have the stats on this, but I think pre-game shows before TSN’s broadcasts were down this year due to scheduling conflicts. It was not unusual to see a baseball game on Friday nights at 5:00 pm followed directly by Friday Night Football at 8:00. The addition of Chris Cuthbert as play-by-play man solidified their broadcaster line-up, easily the best in Canada. Overall, TSN is a strong outlet for the CFL, and a schedule slate of 55 games needs to be increased unless an alternative broadcaster can be found.

CBC’s coverage gets the usual F. CBC covered its normal Saturday night games during the summer plus all holiday games (Labour Day, Thanksgiving) and playoffs. At the end of August the CBC underwent a labour stoppage, causing six games to be broadcast without play-by-play or colour commentary. Not surprisingly ratings increased for these games by all reports, which says something about the quality of their broadcasters and fans opinions of them. Since the 2004 season CBC sports underwent cutbacks due to the NHL labour stoppage, cutting Chris Cuthbert, their only qualified football broadcaster. What was left for 2005 was the assumingly cheaper, jack of all trades, less qualified broadcasters Mark Lee and Steve Armitage. Chris Walby maintained the primary colour commentator chair with Darren Flutie filling in during two game weeks. By simply asking themselves “Would we be hurt by dropping the CBC?” and realizing the answer is “No” the CFL can make the next step in building their brand with another broadcaster.

The Support

Overall, attendance was up in the CFL, hitting a league high not seen since 1978. British Columbia and Toronto showed major gains, which is a major accomplishment considering their state in recent years. The only major negative drop in attendance was in Ottawa who saw a 19% decrease over 2004. Besides a small (less than 1%) dip in Montreal all other teams saw an increase.

2005 CFL Team Average Attendances and Percentage Increase/Decrease from 2004
Team Attendance 2004
+/- %
CFL Total 28,449 4.14%
British Columbia 32,614 22.16%
Calgary 31,270 2.48%
Edmonton 41,933 7.43%
Hamilton 28,002 0.53%
Montreal 23,654 -0.95%
Ottawa 18,489 -19.79%
Saskatchewan 25,566 3.16%
Toronto 30,196 16.98%
Winnipeg 24,317 0.41%

Examining the averages for the visiting teams it is not surprising to see Saskatchewan at the top of this chart with an over 32,000 average. The remainder of the teams range from 26,200 to 29,400. While this average can be manipulated each year depending on where teams play their extra games and differences between East and West, it still is a good barometer of who is putting the most fans in the seats. An equalization type system could help reward this popularity. There would never be consensus in this league to divide local revenues or even portions of the gate but perhaps the league shares could be divided by the number of teams plus one with the extra share divided proportionally to the visitor average. A great idea that would only cost teams a few thousand dollars, but it will never fly just because the idea that rewards not based on your own performance reigns supreme amongst these franchises.

Television ratings continued to climb, with a 19% increase in TSN’s average ratings for the year and at 5% increase in CBC’s ratings (thanks to the lock-out one would think). The next goals for the CFL would be to televise 100% of its games and address the CBC situation for the next TV contract which is not up for another 3 years. The 100% televised schedule shouldn’t be a problem since they only lacked 4 games on TV this year. As for CBC, it may be possible to punt them early depending on TSN’s contract. I believe TSN has the contract with the CFL and is committed to provide a broadcaster with the playoffs and Grey Cup. Unless this is a five year commitment with the CBC, then it may be possible to move to another broadcaster. We can only hope.

Expansion is of course always on the horizon. Halifax hosted a sold out exhibition game at very high prices this year. Talk is 2006 will see a game in Quebec City or Moncton. Besides issues with people stepping forward willing to fund a team (and stadium) and the lack of a stadium in any of these centres, the last expansion experience still looms large in any potential investors mind. Ottawa came into the league under conditions that they would be allowed to be competitive and to do that a $2.5 million salary cap would be in place. They soon discovered the salary cap was only for those who wanted to abide by it, with B.C.’s David Braley calling it a “floor”, not a ceiling. Now to get out of enforcing the existing cap (whose structure has been in place for over 15 years, although becoming more and more abused in the last 5 years) a new salary management system is coming for 2006, orchestrated by the leagues biggest spenders in Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. which will set a $2.5-3.5 million range for teams to spend, starting the same overspending spiral and competitive balance problems that almost ended the league in the 1980’s. Despite the fact that no one is making any money, owners wish to drive up salary costs. This results in Ottawa announcing an interesting strategy for 2006, reducing their administrative expenses to under $1.5 million by cutting staff and other administration costs to allow them to spend competitive money on the football operation while still not exceeding local and league revenues allowing them to hopefully break even while fielding a competitive team. Whether it will work is to be seen, but if it doesn’t Ottawa will certainly be in trouble and owner turnover may be required, affecting the whole league.

2006

2006 will be a critical year for the CFL. Can more balance be brought to the league? Will double digit growth rates continue? If they do slow or show minor reversal will the CFL lose broadcaster and sponsor support? Will instant replays be introduced and what rule changes can we expect be proposed? What will be the fate of Tom Wright, and will private owners and Hugh Campbell break the CFL model by radically changing the salary cap, widening the gap between the have and have-nots in this league?

I suggest that an equalization draft be instituted, granting 2 draft picks to the bottom two teams from the top four teams. The top teams would be able to protect 30 of their 40 man roster; the remaining 10 unprotected would be eligible for draft. A top team would not be able to lose more than one player, meaning each club would have one player taken. This is one step to providing balance to the league.

I would definitely retain Tom Wright as commissioner, and take the radical step to listen to him as a voice that will make decisions which benefit the whole league. This will be a hard thing to do as CFL owners have followed the paths of MLB and the NHL where a small group of powerful owners control the league office for their benefit. However in the CFL increasing control in the hands of a small minority of teams will only weaken the league and the CFL cannot afford additional weakness from internal sources.

I would not implement an instant replay system. I don’t believe that the benefits of such a system will improve the perception of officiating in the league. Much of the criticism raised with officials comes from plays which would not be replay eligible or from fan bias. As for rule changes, I kind of like the idea around penalizing punts out of bound so the return game can return to it’s previous prevalence. However let’s not kid ourselves. A simple 10 yard penalty from the ball spot won’t discourage many coaches compared to a TD return. I would institute a 15 yard penalty, repeat down for punts which travel out of bounds in the air (do not touch the field of play). For punts which do touch the field of play and bounce out of bounds without being touched by the returning team, I would levy a 10 yard penalty from the spot of ball or line of scrimmage and repeat down. I would implement this in the pre-season and determine its effectiveness before instituting it as a permanent rule. Of course it is also a suggestion from a fan perspective, it would have to be proposed and tweaked through a rules committee and all angles examined to make it the most effective. Finally I would revert to additional 15 quarters being played for overtime games in the playoffs over the current shootout format. Let’s put the ball in the hands of the teams and see them drive the length of the field. Imagine the 1989 Grey Cup going to overtime with another 15 minutes of spectacular plays, back and forth lead changes and exciting plays. Much better than the Grey Cup overtime we saw this year in my opinion.

I also would implement a strict salary cap, increasing it to $2.75 million in 2006 and $3.0 million in 2007. An audit of all teams’ expenses would be conducted and any payments found to players in the form of goods or services would go against the salary total of contracts filed with the league office. Salaries for injured players would not be included. A penalty equal to the amount over the excess would be levied against the club exceeding the cap by 10% or under. This penalty would come out of the team’s league share revenue. Teams exceeding the salary cap by more than 10% would forfeit all of their league revenue for that year. If revenue owed that had already been paid (interim payments), the penalty would come out of next year’s league revenue.

I can dream, can’t I?

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OC Jottings

No jottings in the last 7 days. Here is a random jotting.

  • December 13, 2006
    Saskatoon Lands NHL Exhibition Game → After years of avoiding any small market neutral sites in hockey’s heartland, the Calgary Flames will play a game in September 2007 in Saskatoon. Funny how the league cannot bring teams through every city during the regular season, but will have the Florida Panthers travel to Saskatoon for an exhibition game. #
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