A new contributor to The Snap, Justin Rowan takes a look at how the ESPN partnership has helped spread the word of the CFL in the U.S. and has started to build a dedicated fan base down South.
By: Justin Rowan
The CFL has attempted to break into the United States market several times throughout its history. A southern expansion from 1993 to 1995 was unsuccessful and lead to the folding or relocation of all American teams, causing the league to once again become exclusively a Canadian league. A lot has changed since that time; the CFL has developed a much stronger identity as a league, the fan base has solidified and grown and now we are starting to see that southern expansion is not required in order to capture the attention of a wider audience.
2014 was the first year that ESPN started to broadcast CFL games, but the majority of those were only available online. Things are changing in 2015 they will televise a total of 20 CFL games with the remainder all streamed on ESPN3.
Growing up as a CFL fan, I’ve never felt the validation of others was necessary to allow me to enjoy the brand of football I hold dear to my heart. The fact that the league might not have as vast of a fanbase in the U.S. as other pro sports didn’t soften the blow when my hometown Bombers would come up short of the ultimate prize. But with games becoming more available to a wider audience, I couldn’t help but be interested in how the game is being received. When you love something, it’s even better when you can share it with others. So I took to Twitter to find if anybody was willing to share some of their thoughts about the CFL game. Below are the answers I received from those that responded to me reaching out:
NOTE: These are comments from fans in the US who have just started following the CFL game.
What were some of your first thoughts when watching the CFL game?
Ian Dougherty (@IanDougherty): The first thing that really got my attention about the CFL was that I recognized a good amount of the players on the field. I’m a bit of a college football junkie, so I know a lot of CFL players from their days in the NCAA. Seeing some guys that I recognized and enjoyed during their college days, whom I would have otherwise forgotten, was very nice.
Adam Harris (@amichaelharris): Good googly-moogly, that field! I am not what one would call a scientist, but if I had to guess you could fit 37 NFL fields in that thing. It was so big that a buddy I was watching the game with had to tell me that there was, in fact, 12 men on the field for each team. The extra space had engulfed and made invisible an enormous world class athlete in my brain. The crowd was fantastic! I’m sure my cultural ego just unknowingly assumed that it would be more tame or that there would be large areas of open seating, but from the jump everyone was going pretty nuts which actually helped me get more into it than baseball game 1/834765968 that was on the TV next to it.
Clyde Space (@10CanBananaMilk): When channel surfing and trying to figure out if a game is an NFL or CFL game, the first thing that stands out is the chaos of the legal movement of players in the backfield prior to the snap. It takes one snap, pre-snap to know its Canadian football. I often wonder how long it takes for import players to understand all the extra movement and motion and complexity from the added player.
Was there anything that stood out that you enjoyed about the game?
Adam: I was drinking beer and watching football in July… This is all that needs to be said. The level of play was actually super fun.
@LimrickyDavis: I liked the passing game a lot, appealing play style. Plus its football in the summer so whats not to like?
Clyde: I enjoy the ‘p*ss or get off the pot’ that comes with 3 down football. I also like that a good QB stays in place for years once a team finds it’s guy, traditionally. I LOVE the big field, deep endzones and the kick return rules. Also I like the auto clock stopping at the end of the half and game. Instead of contrived gimmicks, it’s understood the fans get more football this way. Fun seeing three or four possessions within that time.
Were there any aspects of the game you didn’t like or that took time to adjust to?
Ian: I don’t think I’ve watched enough to know what I don’t like yet, but it did take some time to get used to the three-down possessions and 20-yard deep end-zones. That goes against everything I’ve ever known with football, but it does have it’s benefits.
Adam: What in the world is going on with this downs situation… I was at a bar with no audio and had to assume for the first several minutes of the game that the coaches in the league were all just terribly frightened to commit a turnover on 3rd down. I watched essentially the entire game and was still super weirded out by it. The rhythm of the game changes completely, and first down runs take on an importance that I was unprepared for (this is traditionally nacho or beer fetching time round these parts).
@LimrickyDavis: I knew about the difference in downs prior to watching, but the difference in field size didn’t hit me until I watched. That took some getting used to.
Clyde: The single point is biggest oddity, though not too hard to comprehend. And even though it was once like it in american football, I’ll never not think the goal post at the goal line is not weird. I think it’s not far off from American fans following premiere league soccer. They might enjoy the games, but little fun in glomming on to the top team frontrunner style, and even less reason to choose some also ran team and pretend the games mean something. It can be tough to find a team to root for and develop a meaningful connection unless you have a connection to a player through your local roots.
Would you have an interest in watching more CFL and why/ why not?
Ian: I’d definitely have more interest in watching the CFL. I enjoy football in any form, and it provides an entertaining alternative during the sports doldrums of summer, where the only other sport that’s consistently on is baseball, which is always boring.
Adam: Definitely! I thought the level of play and the overall TV experience were solid enough to warrant a check-in. We don’t play meaningful games down here for almost 2 months, and as someone who is sort of “meh” on regular season baseball I have a pretty enormous sports-sized hole in my heart currently.
@LimrickyDavis: I’ll certainly watch again if its on ESPN but only if its after the NBA Finals and before CFB season kicks off. I only have so much sports viewing time and itd get pumped for either of them.
Clyde: I admit once the NFL (as well as NHL and NBA camps) starts up my attention drifts away. But I love ESPN’s archived game feature. Love putting a game on that I missed and watching it. It means if I have stuff going on friday night (usually do), that CFL tilt will be archived and ready to start like a podcast when I’m ready. I find myself complaining more and more at the NFL product, and it’s turned every play into legalistic rule interpretations. CFL might not have the money to have the same talent of athletes, but as a game, the CFL is probably the better game in my opinion.
While these responses might not be representative of every American viewer, I found it interesting to see responses from people that didn’t grow up with the CFL as part of their life. As I said above, the opinion of others doesn’t impact my ability to enjoy the CFL. But seeing overwhelmingly positive responses to the league whenever I look for them is heartwarming.
The fact of the matter is that the CFL doesn’t need to be viewed as being in competition with other leagues. It is it’s own sport, with it’s own traditions and rules. For a sport that plays primarily in the dog days of summer, there’s plenty of sports hungry people that are looking to be entertained and the CFL is putting forward a better product than ever. Plus, what’s better than football in July?
Justin Rowan is a Canadian writer that currently writes for the SB Nation Cleveland Cavaliers blog Fear The Sword, as well as Hoops Lounge. You can follow him on Twitter @Cavsanada.