Canadian Football League (CFL)

Although football under formalized rules has been played in Canada since the 1860s, the Canadian Football League (CFL) began its formal existence in January 1958. Previously it had been known as the Canadian Football Council (CFC), formed in 1956 as a loose merger of the Western Interprovincial Football Union and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union. Through the CFC, professional FOOTBALL came under its own jurisdiction without outside interference. Yet, it was at this time that the game also began to show subtle American influences. The value of a touchdown was changed from 5 to 6 points and 12 Americans were allowed to dress for the Grey Cup game, up from 10 the previous year. In 1957, the Council approved the change of position names to reflect those used in the US: Snaps became Centres; inside wings, guards; middle wings, tackles; outside wings, ends; flying wings, wingbacks.

The OTTAWA RENEGADES (formerly Ottawa Rough Riders), HAMILTON TIGER-CATS, TORONTO ARGONAUTS and MONTREAL ALOUETTES formed the eastern division and the WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS, SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS, CALGARY STAMPEDERS, EDMONTON ESKIMOS and BC LIONS made up the western division.

Until 1961 there was no interdivisional play; each conference decided a winner to meet in the GREY CUP game. Limited interlocking play after 1961 allowed east-west rivalries to develop, and this acted as a catalyst for the growth of the league. By 1981 both divisions were playing 16 games in a fully interlocking schedule and the league had reached a peak of success. In 1986 the schedule was increased to 18 games. The structure and success of the league had allowed for nonprofit community ownership of the local teams. Traditionally only the Toronto, Hamilton and Montréal franchises were privately owned. Gate receipts and lucrative TV contracts allowed teams to remain profitable.

The early 1980s appeared promising for Canadian football and the fortunes of the CFL appeared to be at an all-time high. Attendance climbed, sponsorship appeared to be increasing and the Grey Cup game was played indoors for the first time at BC Place Stadium. At the same time, the success was simply a veneer. The Montréal team was in serious financial trouble in 1982 and folded prior to the 1987 season, forcing the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to the eastern division. By the late 1980s, attendance had dropped significantly at Grey Cup games and sound financial contracts with sponsors like Carling O'Keefe and various television networks were not forthcoming. The subsequent decline in attendance, gate receipts and TV revenue hit the CFL and individual franchises hard. The loss of Montréal intensified the financial difficulties facing the league. The imposition of a salary cap curtailed excess spending, but franchises in Calgary, Ottawa and BC all required infusions of private capital to continue operations, and there remain only 3 teams with community ownership: Winnipeg, Edmonton and Saskatchewan.

Private ownership led to more aggressive marketing and finally to expansion into the United States, with the admission of the Sacramento Gold Miners in 1993 and teams in Baltimore, Shreveport and Las Vegas in 1994. Concerns over the Americanization of the league were legion, particularly among Canadian players. The success of the Baltimore franchise, which reached the Grey Cup game in their inaugural 1994 season, only deepened these concerns. The league, however, was committed to US expansion. The Sacramento franchise was moved to San Antonio before the 1995 season, and Las Vegas, which failed miserably on and off the field, was put on hiatus while new ownership could be found. Franchises were awarded to Memphis and Birmingham for 1995, and the league continued to pursue other American locations. Baltimore proved to be the only franchise to achieve any success. They led the CFL in attendance in both 1994 and 1995 and defeated the Calgary Stampeders in the 1995 Grey Cup. The other 4 US teams all failed at the gate and folded following the 1995 season. After the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996, the Stallions relocated to Montréal for 1996, reviving the Alouettes franchise. With the re-emergence of Montréal, the league returned to its traditional format of 4 teams in the east and 5 in the west, with Winnipeg shuttled westwards.

While the experiment with US expansion failed, much-needed money was poured into the CFL through expansion fees and a US cable TV contract was renewed for 1996. The league survived the 1996 season and instituted a salary cap to ease its financial problems. In the late 1990s, attendance in the CFL grew, sponsorships increased and television network ratings went up. Nevertheless, the Ottawa Rough Riders were disbanded in 1996, forcing the league to once again move Winnipeg eastwards.

By all accounts the 2002 season was a success for the CFL. Two teams that had previously folded, the Ottawa Roughriders (now Renegades) in 1996 and Montreal Alouettes in 1987, had both made successful comebacks in recent years with the Alouettes winning the 2002 Grey Cup against the Edmonton Eskimos. Canadian football was also staging a remarkable comeback in Québec at every level; television ratings were up both on TSN and CBC; and a new 3-year collective agreement had been struck with the Players' Association, which added an additional import player to each roster and increased the salary cap by $160,000 to $2.44 million annually per club.

Despite its recent success, the CFL continues to have pressing concerns. Attendance has declined in Vancouver and Hamilton and a positive perception of the CFL is still lacking in Toronto, all of which must be solved before revenues through television fees can be dramatically improved. Yet, notwithstanding its past financial difficulties and ever-changing face, the CFL remains a unique part of Canadian sports culture. The Grey Cup game continues to be played sometime during the last 2 weeks of November; awards to players are given out during the Grey Cup Week festivities. League offices are in Toronto. The CANADIAN FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM is located in Hamilton.