In my perfect football world, the Canadian Football League would be 10 franchises strong (hello, Atlantic Schooners) and all 10 would be financially sound with full stadiums on any given Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the summer and fall.
The XFL, under the direction of Dany Garcia and Dwayne Johnson (and with the financial muscle of RedBird Capital), would be an innovative circuit willing to play the long game in terms of finding out which markets spring football works in and which markets it doesn’t, ultimately creating a sustainable second tier league.
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And as for a collaboration between the CFL and XFL, it would involve shared resources (a combined global draft, for example) as well as player loans, which are common in international soccer. The CFL would maintain its traditional rules (three downs, 12 players to a side, etc.) while the XFL would develop its own unique style of competition.
(I’m not including the NFL in this fever dream because it’s a league that occupies its own planet with a separate ecosystem). Of course, my perfect football world doesn’t exist – nor does anyone else’s. And what we’re left with is one league (the CFL) with major financial issues and another (the XFL) that has to figure out the best way to spend the money it has in what will be the brand’s third reboot.
I’m not an insider so I have no idea what’s going to happen, but everyone who’s interested has something to say about it. Many of those who are much closer to the situation than me seem to think a merger is imminent, with a “new” league emerging sometime after the CFL completes its 2021 season.
A hybrid circuit would involve some major compromises of rules considering the significant differences between the American and Canadian games.
If I was a younger fan who wasn’t emotionally invested in the CFL, that’d be kind of exciting. Before the pandemic ended XFL 2.0 in 2020, I was completely on board with its rule innovations and thought the quality of play was solid.
It was a vast improvement over the original XFL (2001) by every standard of measure, and laid out a fine template for how to reimagine the game. Throw in some CFL style wrinkles and you’d have a game different enough from the NFL and American college football to possibly create a brand new fan base.
But as someone who has followed the CFL since the 1970s, the thought of it losing its identity depresses me. Beyond that, a full merger means a combined CFL/XFL would either live together or die together.
This is much different than American expansion in the 1990s. When the Lower 48 experiment failed, the United States franchises simply became footnotes to CFL history (except for the Baltimore Stallions, which moved to Montreal and became the “new” Alouettes) while the remaining Canadian-based clubs went about their merry way.
But a CFL/XFL blended league would be a new organization with an infrastructure all its own. And that means traditional CFL teams might play in it, but they’d be playing in something other than the CFL. I’m the first to admit I tend to see the glass as half empty, but when I do I’m reminded by those bullish on this potential football marriage of how much money RedBird Capital has to spend. The company manages $4.5 billion in assets and is involved with the likes of Liverpool FC, the Boston Red Sox and LeBron James through Fenway Sports Group.
By taking on the XFL and trying to meld that league’s new ideas with Canadian tradition, it aims to create a new business model for football.
On the other hand, The Canadian Press reports that the CFL lost between $60 and $80 million last year when the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic. That did tremendous damage to the bottom line and it’s hard to tell how much recovery is possible this year. Earlier today the CFL announced a return to play plan that involves a 14-game regular season beginning on August 5 with the Grey Cup set for December 12 in Hamilton. But commissioner Randy Ambrosie cautions that it all hinges on “the state of COVID-19 across the country” and whether or not a significant number of fans are allowed in stadiums.
Ambrosie adds that all clubs are expected to suffer “substantial financial losses” again in 2021, so one can see how a future merger might be born of necessity.
But again, it’s not something I want to see in my perfect (yet nonexistent) football world.
Look, I don’t doubt the combined business and entertainment acumen of Garcia and Johnson, and obviously RedBird Capital has the seed money to make a new kind of league sprout.
But regardless of how much money you have to invest, you want to know that eventually that investment will pay off. And fans of alternative football might not want to hear it, but the next North American-based professional spring football league to last longer than three seasons will be the first.