Why I still love the CFL after all these years!
As we enter the latter half of the 104th Grey Cup Week festivities, I find myself harbouring emotions of another year fallen short for my local team. I believe it is now 26 years and counting since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last tasted the cup.
But this is football of course, so we pick ourselves up and we keep pushing forward. The off-season always has a way of reigniting a sense of hope.
Speaking of football, as is usual this time of year, the national spotlight that comes with the biggest game of the year also tends to bring out the best and the worst between the leagues proud supporters and it’s ciritics, along with those who really could care less.
In the past I have counted myself among the leagues more aggressive verbal supporters. This is because the game remains an important part of who I am, and I always wish more people could share in this excitement.
However, in recent years I have dialed the positive aggression back a bit. Not in my passionate support of course, but rather in the need to defend and evangelize our league to my fellow Canadians against the more lucrative game South of the border. I have come to accept that the only way to truly convince someone that the CFL is a valuable Canadian institution and an entertaining and competitive game is for them to be willing to experience it for themselves.
Saying this, this doesn’t mean I will ever stop being a champion of my favourite league. It needs to be talked about more. It really is a great game and we are lucky to have it as a representation of our Country. And so, as the Grey Cup quickly approaches here are 5 reasons why I continue to invest in cheering on the Bombers and enjoying the CFL:
1. It is an important piece of our National Identity
Now, before anyone decries the idea of suggesting sport could belong in a conversation about Canadian values and Canadian issues, allow me to say this- It was a book called, The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age by Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit, and more specifically a chapter on the formative years of the Toronto/Montreal civic rivalry, that first opened my eyes to the place of sport in building civic and then national identity. To read of the way two sports teams helped to formulate what would become two of the most dominant civic ethos in our Countries history surprised me. To read of how a sports team and a developing rivalry held the power to both to divide and unite people in the early days of our Countries formation was eye opening. It gave new meaning to my passionate support of the Bombers.
I found a more recent conversation this past year when I came across a couple articles asking the same questions about the role of the Olympics in bringing together a world divided by war.
If you are not a sports fan, the idea that sport has a role to play in building our National identity might sound crazy. But a simple google search reveals a wealth of information suggesting that it indeed does. With this in mind, I continue to believe the CFL contributes to our own National identity in an important way. And here’s why: It’s the only true Canadian game that we have.
Yes, I know. For many, hockey remains the ultimate symbol of true Canadiana. And there is a strong argument to be made for curling. So if I lost you at this point, that’s okay. I mean no disrespect. The fact that I really don’t enjoy hockey means I am likely biased. And in saying this I have to admit that I did indeed hang a banner to help support the Jet’s recent playoff run.
But for me there are few moments that celebrate all things Canadian as well as the CFL’s Grey Cup celebration. Sure, a good portion of the players are American, and sometimes the CFL drops the ball on bringing in good Canadian acts for its half time show (hello organizers for next year), but in my opinion there is no other sport in Canada that has the ability to spark a conversation about Canadian values and diversity in the way that the CFL does year after year. Here the Canadian flag takes centre stage over the sport itself, and it is one of the few national celebrations that we can truly call our own.
There really is something rather amazing about a game that can bring together a representation of an entire Country, even in a league that remains poorly represented anywhere East of Ottawa. The CFL does this, and it does it well.
2. It Builds Civic Pride
I know there are Canadian born fans of the NFL who are passionate about a given team. There can be a whole host of reasons for this- history, family connections, a city you love, tradition, proximity, fantasy football.
But I would continue to argue that there is little that can match the experience and passion of investing in your home team. If sport has a role to play in building National Identity, its ability to affect civic pride is that much greater. And as the Spirit of Cities book points out, cities do indeed matter… a lot.
I know the Jets are back. But I am very aware of a time, not so long ago, where the Bombers helped fill the void of their absence. During that period of time I could only hope it would open a door for more people to get a taste of what keeps me coming back to cheer on the Bombers year after year. It is the people and the crowds. It is seeing our beautiful stadium on the horizen. It is sitting (and standing) under the sun, the moon, the stars. It is braving the rain and the snow to help defend our city against a friendly rival. It is about the tradition and the noise and excitement.
All of this makes the game a special experience, and we should never forget that the CFL played an important role in continuing to foster our civic identity at a time when many mourned the loss of its national hockey team. I still plays an important part today.
And if all of that isn’t enough, perhaps the most important thing is the way the Blue Bombers help remind us of how much Saskatchewan continues to suck.
3. The Experiences and The Memories
The experience of the CFL game begins with the Game Day itself, and there is absolutely nothing like the game day experience.
What I love most about the game day experience is the way it brings people together, gets strangers to talk to one another, and ignites a common passion in its fellow fans. I could probably write a book about the characters I have met over the years at the game, and there is nothing like the opportunity to come together and act (and look) like complete idiots together. This is where all fashion sense is left at the door for the sake of our civic pride.
And all respect to the game of hockey, but in football the 13th person can actually make a difference in the game. It is a part of football that I absolutely love, and it is a part of building this passionate connection to my team that I don’t think I would ever experience by cheering on the Vikings south of the border ( but while I’m at it, Go Vikings). This is my team because it represents my city, and to become a part of the game in this way brings me closer to both.
When it comes to creating memories, these are made from the moments that the game affords me and allows me to be a part of over the years. It is about being there to see records broken (Milt), and to celebrate after a game winning field goal in the dying seconds of an important game. It is about the special players and the classic games. It is about clearing the schedule, getting pizza and watching a road game on t.v. (thank you TSN). And yes, it is also about experiencing the pain of a loss or a losing season and being able to talk about it with friends and strangers and then keep on cheering the next day.
4. The Accessibility of the League
Much ink has been spent over the years about this point. It might sound cliché at this point, but it remains an important and valid truth about the ethos of the Canadian league.
A big part of why I love the CFL is that I can really get to know the players and have a voice in the league. Given that the salaries are much more lucrative south of the border and the top line competition that much broader, those who gain an opportunity to play in the Canadian game are often here because they simply love to play and they love the game. In a world where the almighty dollar tends to dominate so much (hello hockey, talk to me when I can actually afford to go to a game), to have a professional level league that is still somewhat protected from such over the top salary talk is actually a breathe of fresh air.
As well, I love the CFL because its affordability makes the game accessible to all different kinds of people and fans. The fact that I can share space with people regardeless of income level or social status is a testament to the reach of the league. It really is a game for everyone.
Along with accessibility comes diversity. Again, much ink has been spent on this as well, but one of the things that I love about the Canadian game is the way you can follow such a wide spectrum of players, including the rare occasion of a league that protects and fosters the development of its Canadian players.
This includes the variety of reasons professional caliber players fail to gain a break in the NFL and come North instead (ill timed injuries, questions of size, age, over stacked rosters), and it is always fun to see players of all shapes and sizes that otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to develop find their form in the CFL. Sometimes these talented players go on to head south after a year or two of shining in our league, and sometimes they end up staying. But to have the chance to celebrate this talent and diversity along with up and coming college prospects means every season provides something unexpected. And it is the intimate size of the league allows these unexpected talents to be savored and celebrated and recognized on a more personal level.
True, our league can afford to grow another team or two. In my opinion one more Eastern team would be the perfect sized league. But over the years the CFL has shown that smaller does not equal weaker. There are many ways to measure strength. Case in point, the reshaping of the NHL into smaller arenas. In-fact, the CFL’s manageable size has allowed it to key in on the strength of the game itself and to often lead the way in inovative ideas, and statistics reveal a league that has grown leaps and bounds from where it was even five/10 years ago. The story this year has been about the struggle to get fans into seats across the league, but hopefully recent stats can help shed some light on how to move forward with this issue: these stats show an increase in t.v. ratings and increase in the younger demographic (18-40 range). This is a positive, but more certainly needs to be done to capture the attention of this demographic for our league to continue to grow. The leagues accessibility remains an important part of this plan moving forward.
5. The Social Game
This is probably the most important point for me. For as much as I love the game, the most important thing is the social connections the game creates. For the last few years I have been trying to revitalize some of the social connections that I lost with the return of the Jets by investing in the game as a family affair. I have been privileged to be able to attend games over the last few years with my in-laws, my wife and my son. There is nothing I love more than seeing them experience the excitement of Game Day. Given that our team has been losing so often and so consistently, this has remained a bit of a tough sell at times, but the reward is so worth it when the moments do arrive and they get a true taste of the loudest fans in the CFL, a sweet victory or a record breaking moment in franchise or CFL history. The experience of the moment is half the fun. Being able to remember that we were there to experience these moments together is the other half of the fun. I remain grateful for these moments, and I continue to remain grateful for friends who share a passion and commitment to CFL football (win or lose) as well.
There’s Always Next Year
A famous phrase around these parts, but in the first time in a long time I think the sentiment might hold some truth. But then again, I think I always say that.
It has been a long few years of football to be sure. But our team finally seems to be going in the right direction. We have found consistency in the organization and coaching staff. Some dynamic players and some good prospects and picks in the near future are helping to create a visible foundation that, I believe, will help make next year even more entertaining than this past one. And save for a poor start, this year definitely was entertaining football. I can’t wait.
But in the meantime we still have the Grey Cup. The biggest game of the year. The symbol of our great league. No matter who’s in it (ABC… anybody but Calgary… ah crap), no matter who wins it (Go Ottawa), this is about celebrating Canadian football and celebrating Canada. This is about a sport bringing us together to share in something truly distinctive. This is about being able to recognize the story lines (like last years MOP facing off against this years MOP). It is about coming together as fans to talk about what gets us excited, to share in our predictions and to, of course eat a lot of pizza. And of course it is about seeing an entire Country come together around the table together. After all, what better way to bring us together than around a great Canadian institution like the CFL.