Published on October 24, 2008 9:47 PM by dbo.
Creating a schedule every year in the CFL can be a challenge. Besides the technical difficulties with bye weeks, season length, stadium availability and the needs of the television networks, the other part of schedule making is the matchups and the events. Keeping the schedule fresh and non-repetitive every year while maintaining the traditions demanded by the fans is a challenge in a small league. Traditions have won out in the past and there has been no sustained attempt to create excitement throughout the season.
In an eight team league and eighteen game regular season schedule, the primary challenge in drawing up a schedule is keeping things fresh for the fans. Teams will play each team in their division three times a season, and one team four times. This results in two home games against divisional opponents each year, which although against regional rivals, leads to fans seeing a lot of the same opponents each year. For the scheduler, the difficulty of rotating the four-contest opponents each year is added.
Football is not conducive to providing great contests in back-to-back match-ups, even in instances of short weeks. In the CFL, one or two pairs of teams playing home-and-home series severely limits the options for the scheduler for the other teams. Too many return match-ups in a schedule takes away the variety in competition, especially when they are cross-divisional contests where within two weeks teams will have played all their contests against each other and not meet in the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, the CFL relies on back-to-back games in its schedule as part of scheduling traditions. There were 14 instances of back-to-back games in the 2007 schedule and 12 instances in the 2008 schedule. In September and October, 2008 Saskatchewan had three back-to-back series scheduled in seven weeks.
Finally, there are the stadium and television schedule challenges, not only about availability but about who the games will be competing with for a stadium and television audience. Clubs will have certain dates they want to avoid to work around other large events in their city, like concerts and other sporting events. Despite the best schedule possible, some will still question the results. In reality though, what was a double-header time-slot that should have been avoided by the pundits opinion, the CFL did pretty well, with both games sold out and one of the broadcasts pulling in higher than average television numbers. Considering stadium availability forced the CFL into that schedule in a tough Sunday market, the CFL did pretty well for itself.
Currently, the CFL only has one showcase on its schedule, the Labour Day Classic weekend, and it is not maximized as well as it could be, with the fourth game bouncing around with no tradition being established for it. There are many who would object with any tinkering with these long standing traditional match ups, but traditions that become repetitious and monotonous deserve tweaking.
Edmonton has established a tradition of playing Calgary in Edmonton the Friday following their Labour Day match in Calgary. Edmonton uses this game against their rivals along with a back-to-school ticket promotion to draw a large crowd. Winnipeg has created a similar tradition in recent years of meeting their Labour Day rival Saskatchewan Roughriders the week following. Named the Banjo Bowl, the game provides Winnipeg an opportunity to sell-out their stadium in a annual traditional match-up.
The CFL debuted its inaugural Retro Week game this year, with one game played in Toronto in Week 12 in September and a return matchup in Week 16 in Winnipeg. Retro Week will be a feature for all teams the next five seasons as the CFL heads towards its 100th season in 2012. The retro games, this year featuring Winnipeg at Toronto celebrating the 1954 Mud Bowl, provide classic-style jerseys, reduced ticket prices and appearances by player alumni for the fans.
The CFL has not established a showcase weekend for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductions. The inductions take place in Hamilton and the Tiger-Cats usually host a game the night before or afternoon after the induction dinner where the new inductees are introduced to the fans. No consistent weekend has been set for the Hall of Fame game, and the full marketing potential of the game has not been realized.
Thangsgiving is the last weekend for a CFL showcase weekend. The CFL has established the Thanksgiving Classic brand for the Thanksgiving Monday games recently, but has not brought the visibility, rivalry and tradition of the games to the level needed to sell out stadiums and drive interest.
An idea for new showcase weekend for the CFL was put out by Jonathan Huntington of the Edmonton Sun. He suggests a partnership between the CFL and its broadcaster, TSN, to create a Football Day in Canada. I like the idea in general and agree it would be successful but I disagree with some of the logistics of his proposal. First, I see no reason to play four games on a single day. Three games is nine hours of coverage, plus another two hours for feature stories and amateur and minor football coverage will be a nice block of coverage for TSN. The fourth game can take the traditional Friday Night Football slot. This also allows all games to be on the main TSN network instead of shipping one game to TSN2. The CFL needs all of its games to be on the primary TSN network, not TSN2 which at launch did not have the two major Canadian carriers (Rogers and Bell) agreeing to carry it (Bell has since picked up the channel). Trying to schedule all four games on a single day is unnecessary and a three-game day reduces the logistics for TV commentary and officiating crews. As for the timing, early August does make sense if your goal is to avoid US College and NFL seasons. However, to truly involve all levels of football, the game would have to be later in the year. Junior football starts in August, but University football doesn’t start until September and most amateur football start camps in late August. September would also be better than early August for playing conditions in an early afternoon game. A decision would have to be made comparing the trade-offs of a game in August versus September.
The CFL needs to strengthen its visibility after Labour Day and can do so by establishing another strong weekend of Canadian football. The Thanksgiving weekend in October is the best candidate for establishing a showcase atmosphere. The weather is crisp but still good for watching football and the stretch run of the season is on with the games taking on more importance in the standings.
The Hall of Fame game has some value to it, but years of it being in Hamilton does not maximize that potential. This game deserves a large crowd each and every year and unfortunately it seems Hamilton is out of the running three out of four years by September and attendance disappoints for the title of the game.
Building traditional important weeks on the schedule is important, but those important weeks cannot diminish the rest of the season. It is important for the league to build up the matchups for the remainder of the weeks during the season.
If you’ve got this far, you are probably wondering if there is a point coming. There is, at least I hope I can make it. There are some radical proposals below. Many people would discard them outright without a second look on the basis “we can’t do that”. These ideas are not meant to be final. This is brainstorming, ideas are not to be analyzed, just put on paper. Later, you evaluate the idea, discuss the challenges it brings, think about adjustments to make it better. Hopefully this will open up the discussion about strengthening the schedule, first in the league office, and once some ideas are refined, with the board of governors.
Labour Day has a set of strong traditional match-ups that result in sell-outs for the fortunate four teams almost every year. There is no opportunity for the other four teams to establish a traditional sellout game for themselves. As these current traditions are so strong, they can withstand some changes without destroying the fan support for them. To provide balance and variety to fans across the league, two weekends could be established and teams rotate each year as to which weekend they get their home game on. The games are marketed as homecoming type games, and with opponents rotating amongst different rivals. For instance, the traditional Labour Day hosts may play other rivals one year, and be on the road against their rivals the next year. If you hosted a Labour Day game, you would be on the road for Thanksgiving. The next year, each teams role would reverse for those two weekends. This provides a variety of opponents, a fair balance and opportunity for all teams, and only increases fan demand for these games. The goal is to have all games on both of these weekends sold out every year.
The Hall of Fame Game needs some new life breathed into it. This will be hard to do in Hamilton, which has hosted the game due to the presence of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in that city. Most CFL fans will never make the pilgrimage to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame so I propose the CFL, in association with the Hall of Fame, move the game along with the induction ceremonies around the country every year amongst CFL cities. This would be a perfect opportunity to provide a road show of the some of the exhibits of the Hall like memorabilia and busts of inductees, as well as the induction ceremonies of each year’s new inductees, with the presentation of the jackets, unveiling of the busts and induction dinner with speeches from the inductees. Spreading this event around the country provides a greater visibility of the Hall to Canadians and the event becomes more prestigious and desired when it only comes to a community once every eight or ten years. Some flexibility may be available here if the Hall of Fame has concerns about abandoning Hamilton, such as returning to Hamilton every second year. Given the chance, cities will be happy to have an event like the Hall of Fame weekend come to their cities regularly.
A Football Day in Canada is an excellent concept for the CFL to expand the number of high visibility games early in the season while getting exposure at the grassroots level of football across the country. August may be too early to schedule such a day and get involvement from all levels of football — high school, junior, university and youth teams — but early August may be the best time to schedule such a weekend. The weekend would start with the traditional Friday Night Football contest, followed by three contests on Saturday starting in the East and moving west. At this time of the year it would also be possible to move the last game around the west in different years with a 10 pm Eastern start.
Creating these dynamic traditions, where games are predictable though fresh opponents will rotate through each year will help keep the schedule fresh and move the tradition away from specific rivalries year-after-year being the game to see, making those rivalry matchups even more rare and important. Four or five showcase weekends will not carry the schedule, however. All games need to be publicized early and often. Special showcase games, rivalries, cross-division matchups all need to be noted for what is special about them. Create buzz and demand for tickets early for more games so getting a ticket becomes more difficult. Selling tickets early because demand is great is the best way to increase crowds when the weather turns cool in the fall. Canadians are notoriously fair-weather fans in the past 25 years as even strong playoff implication games attract less than average crowds. The easiest way to combat this is make acquiring tickets to these games something that cannot be done at the last minute. Building up reasons to get tickets for these games and creating scarcity will put fans on notice that you must get your tickets for games early. With CFL attendance rising and interest growing in every team across the country, now is the time to build on this interest with a little self-promotion to drive ticket scarcity.
Ultimately, the television audience also grows as tickets become more scarce, game promotion increases, and competition, rivalries and events all drive interest in the matchups. Of course, the CFL must maintain a high level of competitiveness across the league so no game is taken for granted. Television audiences will continue to rise as games are proven to be important and entertaining to watch.
Many teams are very close to achieving averages close to their capacity. The goal is to have all teams like Montreal, sold out early in the season, or Saskatchewan, sold out weeks in advance, even in the fall. A fresh schedule that builds up every game, not just games on special dates, will help create the excitement and demand for tickets and television audiences.