Gamechanger: Optimism surrounds CFL expansion

Photo by dave adamson-unsplash

We don’t know when and we don’t know where but expansion in the Canadian Football League looks to be closer than ever before.

The nine-team circuit has had a number of configurations over the years—few weirder than when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were members of the Eastern Division—but a 10th squad could provide not only divisional balance but a coast-to-coast presence for three-down football.

Experts say a number of possible locations are on the radar, including Quebec City and London, but the smart money is on Halifax-Dartmouth.

David Belof, managing partner of Deloitte Canada’s Regina office, believes expansion is practically an inevitability. 

“Look at the population growth and corporate growth in the Maritimes. It’s a huge story there. When you look at the fastest-growing cities in the country, Halifax is at the top,” he says.

Belof is far from your typical armchair quarterback. He had a side hustle with  the CFL’s statistics crew for 26 years, retiring after last year’s Grey Cup.

The CFL has made a number of forays into Atlantic Canada in the past, most recently in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, two hours northwest of Halifax,  with the Touchdown Atlantic game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Toronto Argonauts last July. Raymond Field, home to the Acadia University Axemen football team, usually holds 3,000 fans but temporary seating boosted the crowd up to nearly 11,000 for the 30-24 win by the Argos. The same two teams will tango this July at Huskies Stadium in Halifax.

“I think it’s all building the story. They need to test the market and the experience,” Belof says.

“The excitement and energy at that game was brilliant. It was one of the most exciting games of the year, not necessarily for what was happening on the field but from a Maritimes culture perspective.”

One only had to look around the stadium to see the number of people wearing watermelons on their heads to gauge the favourite. “It felt like a Saskatchewan home game,” he says.

The biggest challenge, of course, is a venue. There are no football stadiums with a capacity higher than 10,000 east of Quebec City. 

“From a financial feasibility point of view, the only challenge is around the stadium. It’s something that is top of mind with [corporate Canada] and the CFL. That’s what they’re trying to figure out,” Belof says.

Bob Irving agrees. The long-time play-by-play voice of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who retired two years ago believes expansion would have happened a long time ago if there had been a stadium.

“That has always been the stumbling block,” he says.

“The challenge is finding a well-heeled business person or corporation—Irving Oil anybody?—based in Atlantic Canada that believes a multi-million-dollar investment in football would add ‘tremendous’ value to the community,” Irving says.

While the CFL’s two newest stadiums—Mosaic Stadium in Regina and Investors Group Field in Winnipeg both have more than 33,000 seats—Irving doesn’t think an expansion city needs a facility that big, particularly outside of Western Canada.

“If you’ve got 24,000 or 25,000, that’s all you need. If you’re a lot bigger than that, there’s no demand for tickets,” he says.

Tim Hortons Field, home of the Hamilton Tiger Cats, which opened in 2014, has a capacity of 23,218.

Halifax, along with nearby Dartmouth, would not be the smallest market in the CFL with a population of about 510,000. That honour belongs to Regina, which has about 230,000 inhabitants. There are another 350,000 people in the Saskatoon area, less than three hours away.

CFL commissioner, Randy Ambrosie, says a 10th team would balance the two divisions and could have a positive effect on the schedule.

“I’ve always dreamed of the Canadian Football League being a truly national league that stretches across the country. It could open possibilities for shifting forward the dates for the CFL Playoffs and even the Grey Cup. Depending on its location, a tenth club could also open new rivalries to re-energize and re-invigorate existing fanbases,” he says.

Ambrosie says it’s important to note that expansion must be handled carefully in terms of fan support, infrastructure and passionate ownership. 

“We have seen success in connecting with local owners, such as Bob Young in Hamilton, Amar Doman in B.C. and more recently, Pierre Karl Péladeau in Montreal, but those individuals had special relationships with those markets. It’s a strong blueprint to follow, but not a prerequisite. A committed leader with intimate knowledge of the market, a true connection to the fanbase and resources to support and strengthen a team are very important,” he says.

There’s no doubt that proponents of CFL expansion would love to follow a model like the NFL.

In a world where a growing number of viewers are moving away from traditional television models, the NFL stands tall. According to a recent study of live and same-day data from Nielsen, the NFL racked up 19 of the 20 most-viewed broadcasts of 2022 and 82 of the top 100.

In fact, only six non-sports programs cut the MUSTARD last year, highlighted by President Biden’s State of the Union address following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at No. 7 in March.

The league’s top TV property, the Sunday afternoon slot shared by CBS and Fox, averages nearly 26 million viewers. The more eyeballs tuning in, of course, translates into giant wheelbarrows full of money.