June 14, 2008

When two leagues collide

The following editorial was written by the editors of the National Post and appeared in that newspaper today.

When two leagues collide
National Post
Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Americans are coming — and they’re bringing their extra down with them.

Over the next five years, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills will be playing eight games
at Rogers Centre in Toronto. Given that Buffalo increasingly stands out as a
small, impoverished market amid the NFL’s juggernauts, many observers see this
foray as a prelude to a full-fledged relocation of the franchise to Canada’s
largest and wealthiest city.

If this happens, the fallout could be severe. Optimists declare confidently
that an NFL franchise could coexist in the same market with the Toronto
Argonauts of the CFL. Others aren’t so sure. Toronto is nowhere near as big as
New York, the only North American urban area that doubles up on all the major
team sports.

How far should Canada go to protect the CFL? All the way, says Senator Larry
Campbell. Under the terms of his Bill S-238,

“no person owning or operating a football team within a foreign league shall
require or permit that team to play football in Canada.” If this football
nationalist gets his way, playing regular sea-son NFL games in Toronto would be,
quite literally, illegal.

We’re not prepared to go that far: Given that our economy is strongly
dependent on trade with our southern neighbour, Canada shouldn’t be picking
protectionist fights — especially given the current mood in America’s Congress.
Moreover, such a law might seem downright hypocritical in the shadow of a
campaign to migrate one or more ailing U. S.-site NHL franchises into the
Canadian market.

A far better approach, we believe, is to begin with a rallying cry for
Canadian fans and corporations to support our own brand of football. Buoyed by a
surge in attendance and corporate sponsorships, the CFL should be
well-positioned to face any threat from its larger, richer, four-down,
small-field southern cousin.

CFL football is a more entertaining product than the NFL variety — and many
Canadians are rightly proud of it. In the West, the league is as much a part of
the region’s culture as the fall harvest. In Quebec, the Alouettes create a
needed bridge to Anglo sports culture. The Grey Cup, and the parades and parties
surrounding it, stand as one of the great rituals on our annual calendar, as
commissioner Marc Cohon details elsewhere on this page. Then there is the civic
involvement of CFL players in their local communities. The list of intangibles
goes on and on.

It would also help the league if broadcasters were able to use the sport to
satisfy their Canadian content broadcast quotas. Although we have our problems
with CanCon rules, as long as they are in place, let’s at least use them to
protect something of real value to proud Canucks. That way, the CFL might make
the transition from specialty channels, such as TSN, to major networks where
games would get wider reach and generate more cash for the league. This in turn
would help the CFL compete with any possible incursion by the NFL, whose teams
make money hand over fist before selling even a single ticket, thanks to the
league’s lucrative TV revenue stream.

As well, governments should look at identifying at least some of the public
funding currently available to help build cultural institutions in our cities
and direct it toward much-needed stadium upgrades. Programs that helped pay for
projects such as the Royal Ontario Museum, the Ontario Art Gallery and the
Canadian Opera Company’s new opera house are justified on the basis that they
help promote Canadian culture. But what is more culturally Canadian than, say,
painting your face and going to a Ti-Cats game?

In an ideal world, no football team would need public money to rebuild and
maintain a first-class stadium. But given all the public billions that have been
poured into NFL teams, our own CFL teams would be put at a massive disadvantage
in any direct competition were they not to enjoy at least some support.

Of course, much of this speculation may be moot. The Bills’ owner, Ralph
Wilson, is 89 years old, and has indicated the team will be put up for sale
after his death. There is no guarantee that a Toronto contingent would be the
highest bidder in an open auction.

But whether or not the threat to the Canadian game is genuine, this is a good
time for citizens, corporations and governments to think about how they can
protect this extraordinary cultural institution. If we take the CFL for granted,
Canada might end up without a league of its own.