The Canadian Football League turns 50 years old on Saturday. It may be a surprise to many observers just how young it really is.
Although Canadian rugby football has been played since its first documented game in 1861 on the grounds of the University of Toronto, and all of the CFL teams are more than a half century old, the current member clubs as well as the Ottawa Rough Riders came together as an entity at the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Sunday, January 19, 1958.
For many years, Canadian football was governed by the Canadian Rugby Union which was established in December, 1891 by both the Ontario and Quebec Rugby Football Unions. Other associations soon joined the CRU’s ranks. The Canadian Intercollegiate Rugby Football Union, the predecessor to Canadian Interuniversity Sport, joined in 1897, while the Western Canada Rugby Football Union became a member in 1911. The Western Canada Intercollegiate Rugby Union joined the CRU in 1927.
The CFL’s seeds, however, were sown by both the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (which joined the CRU in 1907) and the Western Interprovincial Football Union (a CRU member beginning in 1936). The IRFU, or Big Four as it was commonly referred as, was made up of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Montreal Alouettes, Ottawa Rough Riders and Toronto Argonauts, while the British Columbia Lions, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers shaped the WIFU.
As Canadian football grew, so did the professional game from its amateur roots. The nine clubs that made up the IRFU and WIFU became the dominant members of the CRU, competing for every Grey Cup since the end of the Second World War. It soon became clear that the interest of these professional clubs were different than others in the CRU.
In an effort to best represent the needs of the IRFU and WIFU, the Canadian Football Council was formed in 1956 as the governing body of professional teams inside the CRU. But it became clear that these clubs wanted greater control of their destiny. At the time, Canadian pro football was a business grossing in excess of $5 million. As a result, to borrow a line from the CFL’s first commissioner G. Sydney Halter, Q.C., there was a movement “to organize Canadian pro football to bring all matters pertinent to it that at this time can be handled on a national basis under the jurisdiction of a single central office.”
Powers of the new league would be expanded to give it control of its own players (without these individuals needing a CRU Certificate), direct control over its playing rules (and interpretation of these rules without going to the CRU), and greater control of the Grey Cup, specifically ticket allotment. As a result, the CFC was dissolved on Friday, January 17, 1958 and two days later, the CFL was created, independent of the CRU.
Since then, the CFL has grown into the league that is known today. The IRFU soon became the Eastern Conference of the CFL while the WIFU became the Western Conference. They became divisions in the early 1980s. A partial interlocking schedule (outside exhibition and post-season play) was introduced in 1961. The CFL has fluctuated between the original nine founding clubs to as high as 13 during the United States expansion years.
The next 50 seasons look bright as the CFL enjoys a resurgence in the hearts and minds of Canadians from coast-to-coast, and those who follow the game beyond Canada’s borders.