The two leagues are exploring a merger for the 2022 season
Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson surprised the sports world when he announced that he bought the XFL in early March for $15 million from Vince McMahon, before the league went up for auction. The Rock and his ex-wife Dany Garcia signed an agreement with Redbird Capital Partners to secure the deal and it is set to be finalized this August. Almost immediately after buying the league, Johnson announced that he was in talks with the Canadian Football League (CFL) to form a partnership that would benefit both entities.
According to reports, Johnson, who played linebacker for the Miami Hurricanes and then had a brief stint with the Calgary Stampeders, was always enamored with the Canadian game and believes this is the best chance for a successful late spring to early fall league that could fill a gap when there is no NFL or NCAA football. He could be right.
Failed XFL Efforts
Despite gimmicks, promotions and various rule adjustments to attract fans, the league has just never been able to attract enough long-term interest to make it viable. In it's first attempt in 2001, the XFL attracted quite a few viewers and fans for the first week, but it quickly went downhill when people realized it was a boring and inferior game mostly consisting of amateur players who were never good enough to make it to the NFL and the rule changes really didn’t help improve the product. Only San Francisco was able to get an average attendance above 30,000. The TV ratings dropped from 9.6 in the initial week inaugural season of the league to less than half in the next week and declined the rest of the year. The championship game only received a 2.6 rating, with far less than a million viewers.
Last year, the TV ratings for the XFL were almost identical to 2001, with a high rating in the first week and quickly declining numbers each week following. And by week 5 the XFL had fewer than 1 million viewers, even less than the Food Network program Girl Meets Farm, which most people likely never even heard of. Once the pandemic hit, Vince McMahon shut down the league.
The long, storied past of the CFL
The Canadian Football League was founded in 1958, and for most of its history the league hosted teams in nine cities; Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Ottawa and Regina. The Ottawa Rough Riders folded for a few years, but returned in 2010 as the Ottawa RedBlacks and the Montreal Alouettes went through a lot of restructuring. While the league has always been successful in the smaller cities in Western Canada and in Hamilton, it has struggled at times in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
Until about the 1980s, the Toronto Argonauts were the prime ticket in the city. Games were sold out with over 50,000 fans sitting in the outdoor Exhibition stadium and the stands were filled with wealthy season ticket holders. Things changed in the 1980s once the Toronto Blue Jays became a contending MLB team and after the city acquired an NBA team in the Raptors. Suddenly many Toronto fans viewed the CFL as a product beneath them and stopped attending games saying they would only return if Toronto acquired an NFL team. Moreover, the demographics of CFL viewers started to age and as people either died or decided not to renew season tickets due to economics or travel concerns, they allowed their season tickets to expire.
The move by the Argonauts from Exhibition Stadium to the Rogers Centre (Skydome) was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as many fans felt the stadium wasn’t well suited for professional football. Consequently, attendance and viewership declined. Eventually the Argonauts moved from the Rogers Centre to BMO Field, and while that has increased the percentage of seats filled, it hasn’t improved overall attendance.
The Montreal Alouettes, as well as the Ottawa RedBlacks, also had up and down years and each team required governments to step in for a brief period due to lack of fan interest. By the time the Alouettes were taken over by the league in the mid-1980s they were attracting less than 10,000 fans. The terrible confines of Olympic Stadium, which featured large garbage bags as walls and a drooped in ceiling turned off most fans and the team only started getting fans to return when they moved to the stadium at McGill University. Unfortunately, the excitement around that move hasn’t lasted and in recent years the Montreal Alouettes have returned to relatively poor attendance.
Expansion to the States
Attendance and viewership had dropped so low in the CFL that the commissioner at the time decided the only solution was U.S. expansion. The first U.S. team to join was the Sacramento Gold Miners (later moving to San Antonio) in 1994 and the following year Las Vegas, Baltimore and Shreveport joined he league. The success of the expansion was mixed.
The league did fairly well in Baltimore, but struggled in the other cities. They used Canadian rules, except for the mandatory Canadian player quota, which U.S. teams were exempt from. And when Baltimore was granted an expansion team for the Baltimore Ravens, it sealed the new CFL’s fate stateside, as Baltimore indicated they would fold their Baltimore Stallions team (the only U.S. team to win the Grey Cup). Aside from a lack of interest in most cities the expansion also showed how little the U.S. knew or cared about Canada or their version of pro football. Many will still recall Dennis Park completely butchering the lyrics and tune to Oh Canada at the Las Vegas Posse’s opening game, using the tune Oh Christmas Tree for part of it. For masochists here is a link to that performance.
Not surprisingly the expansion also did little to increase interest in the Canadian cities either.
But to the CFL’s credit, attendance and viewership has increased slightly in recent years, although the pandemic forced the league to shut down completely in 2020 and many teams are concerned about their futures, especially if games can’t start up again in 2021. It’s also unlikely the league will play without fans since TV contracts aren’t high enough to make the games financially viable.
So, is the XFL and CFL merger viable? Possibly.
Unlike with the original CFL expansion, the XFL has 8 teams in some good cities, including many of the larger U.S. cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Houston. And there are up to 13 other cities considering an expansion team, including cities like Chicago, Dallas and Tampa Bay. ESPN is interested in hosting the games and DraftKings has indicated it will be the sports betting and fantasy sports partner. Canada doesn’t currently allow single game sports betting, but that will change soon. The biggest question will focus on the size of the field, the number of downs, the CFL requirement on a mandatory number of Canadian players and the dates of games. The last area may be the easiest to resolve. The CFL usually starts in late summer and ends around October, but there is no doubt the XFL will prefer to start earlier and finish before the start of the NFL season.
The biggest concern with the traditional February XFL starting date is that Canadian winters are cold and snowy, particularly in cities like Regina and Winnipeg, and it’s uncertain how many fans would be willing to go to games in minus 30 temperatures. Starting games in say April would alleviate that concern and it would end before the NFL and NCAA seasons start. Toronto is the only team with a MLB team, but the Blue Jays play in a different stadium so there won’t be conflicts for games involving the new league and most U.S. XFL cities use smaller stadiums, so there should be no conflicts there either. As well, starting earlier would avoid a conflict with MLS, which some cities are using their smaller stadiums for.
The question on field size is easily resolved and it would likely be 100 yards instead of the traditional 110 yards in the CFL, since it’s easier to reduce current fields than it is to increase existing traditional American football fields. They could also compromise and use 110-yard field with larger endzones for games played in Canadian cities and the 100-yard fields for games played in American cities. The variety could actually add a nuance of intrigue like how the American League uses designated hitters, whereas the NL still requires pitchers to hit. It’s almost certain the CFL will demand 3 down football, since that is one element that separates them from American football, and it may be something the XFL would welcome since it leads to more passing, higher scoring and more exciting finishes. Other rules could be tweaked to allow American fans to associate it with traditional American football even if it is only 3 downs.
And as for the required Canadian quota requirement (21 of the 44 players on CFL teams, excluding quarterbacks, need to be Canadian), they no doubt will use a rule like the original CFL expansion, whereby the American XFL teams will be excluded from the quota requirement, but will require that at least 21 players be American. The exclusion for American teams in 1994 and 1995 didn’t make the American teams any more superior. An added bonus is that the NFL has partnered with the CFL as a development league so if they do the same with the new league, the talent pool could be much higher than it was before.
Like with any sport, the success or failure of the new league will be how enjoyable it is to watch and whether there is an initial interest. Some analysts feel that any league will fail outside of the traditional fall and early winter months because each sport has a season and that is the season for football. Other analysts, however, point to the success of the CFL for several decades along with the initial interest in XFL games. If people turn in early and exclaim how exciting it is to watch they will likely watch the following weeks as well. And given the absolute connection between football and gambling, regulated sportsbooks will have a huge impact on the success of the league as well.
Advertising by companies like DraftKings, MGM and other sportsbook providers will be crucial and there has been a mention of not only promoting wagering on games in the new league, but making it even easier. Similar to the way soccer games have operated in the UK, there has been mention of having sportsbook kiosks at the games themselves, where people can go up to a betting window (as they do in Las Vegas or at a horse racing track) and placing wagers on games before they start and, in some cases, having in-play wagering as well. And for people watching at home, the ability to bet with an online sportsbook in-play will be crucial as well.
So, there is no question that with the right dates, the right set of rules and good marketing, a new XFL-CFL merged league could prove to be very successful. But . . . they must get it right the first time. If this new league turns out to be boring or confusing during its infancy, fans will quickly tune out and the new league will almost certainly go the same way as the XFL’s attempts in 2001 and 2020. There are smart people in both leagues and the new league won’t start until 2022, so both leagues have time to get their brightest minds in the room and brainstorm to figure out what are the best features of both leagues and how they can satisfy both Canadian and American fans. It may not be a bad idea to survey football fans as well to see what they like and don’t like about each league as it stands. It’s unlikely either league will flourish moving forward on their own and this could be a lifeline. And after a full season of sports lockdowns, there is no doubt that fans will be itching for a new viewing and betting opportunity, so the timing couldn’t be better.