Earlier Start and Out of Balance

Published on January 7, 2018 3:57 PM by dbo.

(Editor’s note: Though edited for clarity and grammar, editing oneself for length is difficult. Therefore, this is very long and quite possibly rambles and goes off topic at times. You have been warned).

Schedules, Weeks, Byes, Starts, Divisions and Number of Games, Oh My!

The release of the 2018 CFL schedule implemented a 21-week season, promised earlier by Commissioner Ambrosie as part of steps to make the game safer by introducing another bye for players and eliminating the short weeks teams were forced to play due to the odd number of teams, an 81-game season and a 20-week schedule.

While adding an extra week was touted earlier by fans as a solution, usually as a single game week between Grey Cup finalists in the first week of the season, the actual implementation provides a solution that is both more fair and addresses other issues, such as improving rest and reducing short weeks. With nine teams and nine games per season, 81 games is not easily divisible into the requisite number of weeks. But by taking three weeks and playing only three games per week, therefore providing a bye for each team in those weeks (nine total), we are left with 72 games. 72 is completely divisible by 18 weeks, for four games per week, our desired number. In 18 weeks of four games, and a bye for a single team each week, each team receives two more byes, for a total of three. All by increasing the schedule by one week, to 21 weeks, and optimizing the whole, rather than just plunking one game in the first week of the season.

The impact of this is a schedule that starts one week earlier, in mid-June. This is something the league felt was an acceptable tradeoff in order to provide a schedule that is more fair and consistent to each team each season while improving player rest during the season. In hindsight, it will be questioned why it took so long for the league to address this when improving player safety has been in the forefront for years.

Earlier Season

The commissioner has mentioned starting the season even earlier, in order to hold the Grey Cup the third week in October. This is something he believes can be done as early as the 2019 season. He frames this around having great weather for the Grey Cup championship, and using that to increase the biggest sporting day in Canada to two or three times the size. As a result, the playoffs and regular season all move up, and gain better weather. These grand plans to grow the Grey Cup in size (assuming attendance, as not sure how local weather affects those watching at home — though good weather may prevent people from staying inside to watch football) may be limited by the expansion available to stadiums, with only Edmonton and Vancouver likely to host Grey Cup attendances greater than 45,000. There is no pressing desire from the other centres to increase capacity, rather it is not the weather restricting capacity, but a desire to create scarcity and prevent procrastinating ticket buyers. I think the commissioner needs to further explain the meaning of a Grey Cup two or three times the size, and how improved conditions will enable that.

With a mid-June season start already, an October 20th Grey Cup and 21-week season would result in Week 1 falling on May 12th and Week 21 September 29th in 2019 (I’m counting back weeks from the Sunday Grey Cup, so these dates are Sundays. It could be games will be played on different days at the beginning of the season, or on Sundays). The immediate question is whether the CFL could compete against the hockey playoffs in May and June at the start of the season and whether its television partner would be interested in such a shift. Ambrosie responds appropriately, stating he is not going to presume anyone’s response, but bring the topic to the table to have discussions about the possibilities. He is confident about the product and not short-changing its ability to matter to Canadians and compete in the marketplace.

Earlier Season Drives Expansion?

An early season is not something usually related to develop expansion opportunities, but based on one writer’s interest in Windsor, could it perhaps help the league expand past 10 teams? This is surprising, as Windsor has traditionally been soft on CFL support. Let’s assume Atlantic gets the 10th franchise. For the 11th and 12th people look for the best East and West opportunity. Quebec City is the easy favourite in the East, with Saskatoon thrown out in the West, though it would create tough economics, and Victoria mentioned as well.

Instead, if Windsor was truly interested, would that be a possible play? In terms of alignment, three 4-team divisions could work — East: Atlantic, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City; Central: Hamilton, Toronto, Windsor, Winnipeg; West: BC, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatchewan. I know this will anger Winnipeg/Saskatchewan fans for sure, but it is just an early thought. No one is carving it in stone tablets for the league constitution. Three things are required for any expansion, those are willing owners, a stadium and community support. None of these are apparent anywhere for an 11th and 12th team.

Some of the impacts to consider with an earlier season:

  • Does this allow for the return of Sunday games through May and June since there is no competition and that is the traditional day for US audiences? Will this then allow the CFL to build a Sunday following that extends into July and even August? Could September then follow?
  • May and June weather is unpredictable as well, from snow to rain to heat across the country.
  • Spring does not just compete with the NHL, but junior hockey as well. There are numerous Junior teams in CFL centres, which will compete for the attention and dollars of people up to the Memorial Cup.
  • Games around Canada Day, even when mid-week, may be easier to make event games.
  • Middle third of the season is played in prime vacation time of July and August, with only four weeks to ramp up towards the playoffs in September.
  • Labour Day weekend games now hold more importance, occurring in the last third of the season. It may be difficult to change the habits of fans used to the “season starts on Labour Day” idea, excluding them from three quarters of the season. For example, I get lots of traffic in September looking for printable schedules. This would appear to be the audience that isn’t aware of the season start in June.
  • Why not target the Thanksgiving weekend for the Grey Cup, which is more travel friendly for fans, rather than the third weekend in October? A holiday weekend would soon be known/remembered for the Grey Cup, and stand out in the calendar for Canadians to watch a Sunday night Grey Cup without any concerns about imbibing and sleeping in Monday morning.
  • October is competing with the baseball playoffs and the start up of the hockey season. While Sunday scheduling minimizes this, there is increased competition for fan eyeballs.
  • Avoiding a last Sunday in November Grey Cup avoids the American Thanksgiving/Black Friday/Cyber Monday cult that has overtaken our culture, which may be a more important avoidance than the weather conditions.

Ambrosie failed to mention talking to fans about the change, but I believe the league/teams must be consulting with the ticket buyers and non-ticket buyers. I expect this isn’t being decided only by the gut feelings at the governor level, but research and focus groups will be involved to see how various changes are received. The results from small groups can be risky to apply to large populations, studies can be constructed to return the results you want and do nothing to prove how shifts in attitude may occur over time in non-CFL demographics, so experimenting is the only real way of proving how the market will react and whether the market you have and the market you desire react favourably.

Update Jan. 12th, 2018: Reports from the GM meetings state that no logistical insurmountable issues were raised by the GMs regarding an earlier schedule start. Things that would be impacted were the free agency date, draft date, hosting training camps on university campuses and the CBA (May 15th is the current earliest training camp start date). None of these need be worried about unless the support from the broadcast partner and the fans are confirmed.

Cold Weather Digression

I am and have been against changing the Grey Cup date or season for weather reasons. However, it is clear that battle is lost. Today’s fan won’t endure even minor discomfort for anything but a Grey Cup (a snowy Grey Cup is celebrated — see #8 — but other games are avoided for the possibility of cold, snow, rain). If accepting this reality and making necessary changes enables growth in the CFL fan base, then it is worth while. If it does not deliver this, then it will take away a great historical tradition of the league and further separate our society from the elements.

Growth

Not specifically mentioned as a reason for the earlier season by Ambrosie, providing content to the NFL Network is mentioned as something the league is pursuing. This is suspicious in relation to the season start. The NFL has plenty of new, live content from August to February. The CFL‘s current schedule only provides six weeks of content before American broadcasters have no need for it (the same goes for the CFL‘s current US broadcast partner, ESPN). They need a spring league, from March to August, to fill their programming hole. Rather than for its own requirements, the CFL‘s push for a earlier season is more likely tied to growing revenue, and the NFL Network is one way this could be done, if you have an earlier schedule. Jeff Hunt’s take on it out of Ottawa seems to indicate targeting the American market is a key goal of the new commissioner, and more of a driver of a May start than weather, which is a side benefit. The spring league label only confirms the status of developmental league (which many already accept), not a separate sport altogether, which has been the league’s history and allows for a separate identity and control over its own destiny.

Is this so bad? Might it be one of the few options the league has besides the status quo? All businesses strive for growth, revenue growth most of all. There are only a few ways you can grow, demographically, geographically, or new products/markets (sometimes by acquisition) are common.

The CFL has made some inroads in demographic growth, attracting more women and successfully targeting younger fans in certain markets. These inroads have only offset the losses from traditional fans. Achieving substantial growth as a percentage in demographics is difficult and time consuming. Other methods likely provide greater and faster growth for less cost.

Geographic growth beyond nine teams has been very difficult for the league. The recent return to Ottawa has been a success, and has grown the revenue of the league. The potential franchise for Atlantic Canada is the next possibility in Canadian growth. This targets a new region, that would provide immediate revenue growth from the franchise and to the league (increased sponsors, and theoretically, TV revenue for additional games and increased viewership). Over time, interest growth in the region as the result of a competitive franchise would be expected as the league wins new fans.

Beyond ten teams, geographic growth in Canada becomes more difficult. It would be likely the league would want to expand to 11 and 12 franchises within a short period of each other for logistic reasons. This puts a strain on Canadian talent, and a best guess this would be a decade or more off from the addition of a tenth team. This leads people to look south again. American expansion is an easy geographic growth option, but a difficult one for a league that solely oeprates in Canada, unlike any other business. It is difficult to find partners that are truly buying into your league long term, not making a play for a merger, or shift towards American rules, or other pursuits not compatible with the purpose of the CFL. Even if you find those trustworthy partners, perhaps in markets close and similar to CFL centres, currency differences, the CBA, television, scheduling and more issues have to be solved before any team can take the field. Failure to do so will lead to one side or the other failing, and be a serious setback to the CFL or the end of the league altogether.

This leaves new products/markets. The CFL isn’t going to acquire another league, or start an arena league (teams may/do branch into owning soccer franchises, but at this time this is unrelated to the league). However, the Canadian market is only so large, and a reason growth may be limited to the growth of the population is because it is sports saturated. However, the American market is not when it comes to football (broadcasters have channels with five months to fill, and a portion of the public that has proven to have an unsatiable appetite for content on their players). This leaves the CFL in a situation with a product, but one not in the right time of year. Leaving the CFL as is in Canada, but generating revenue from American broadcasting seems to be one way to generate revenue growth from new markets to the league office. Revenue growth trumps all, so if the start and end dates of the season need to change, then it is worth doing to raise the position of the league.

Single Division

Ambrosie has also talked about looking at the divisions and playoff format to address competition. In the analysis, the league should look at what is the desired result, and what is a symptom and what is a cause. Putting the best teams in the playoffs is the implied goal, but ignores the problem as to why there is a competitive imbalance. Is it temporary, is it systemic, does it pose a risk to the league? Without addressing the underlying condition, the cure could accelerate the disease.

Divided over Divisions

Since the 2014 CFL season there has been much consternation and calls for a playoff format change or single division to address a perceived East/West Division competitive imbalance. The single division and playoff format ideas got some traction this year with the new commissioner, with a lot of focus on the need to deliver the best competition for fans, but little on the how or examination of the cause of the problem and whether the proposed solution solves it.

Single Division or Bust

(The following looks at some proposals from a few years ago to fix the division/playoffs. Most since have been derivitives of these ideas).

Most single division demands come from the perspective that I want my team in the playoffs, and are certainly West-centric. Some go beyond, “it’s broken, here’s the easy fix” response, and examine the how like Kirk Penton’s early 2014 season piece (linkrot protection). Lets look at it in more detail.

  • I will ignore “if the playoffs started today” argument. The playoffs don’t start after Week 5 or Week 10 or Week 18. Only the standings at the end of the regular season matter, after all teams play 18 games.
  • One of the stated requirements of no divisions (well, a single division) would be a balanced schedule? How would a single division create this requirement? The fudging talked about here is done in schedule making all the time, dependent on the number of teams and games. However, Penton’s fudging in a single division involves each team playing an extra game against one opponent from their old East and West division mates. So division/regional rivalries remain important, apparently, and there is no schedule balance (playing teams an equal number of times) because there are 18 games and eight opponents.
  • East/West Grey Cup match-ups don’t matter since host teams are putting big emphasis on getting to the big game, and the game will still be packed.
  • Notice how the assumption is two West teams play the Grey Cup at Rogers Centre (these days BMO Field). How quickly would the cries start to revert to two divisions if two East teams met for the championship in Winnipeg, Regina or Vancouver, especially if both qualified for the playoffs at the bottom of the standings. The fact this isn’t mentioned shows it is not even a possibility to Western folks.
  • One division provides for more jockeying for position in the final third of the season, where every game is a division game in the standings. The 2018 schedule provides division only matchups in the final three weeks of the season, so it certainly can be done without a single division. Throwing out the interlocking schedule which creates disparity in the divisional and non-divisional games is one way to provide more divisional games, which makes it easier to schedule them exclusivly at the end of the season.

Again in 2014 Jason Gregor lobbied for consideration of a single division and changed playoff format (linkrot protection) based on Wally Buono’s proposal for seven teams qualifying for the playoffs. Let’s look at Buono’s proposal:

  • One division, seven teams qualify for the playoffs, first place team gets a first round bye. Remaining six teams playoff, leaving 3 teams, who join the first place team in a final playoff round to see who gets to play for the Grey Cup championship.
  • It is seen as good for teams, good for selling tickets and good for TV. Based on no empirical evidence.
  • Allowing 7 out of 9 teams in the playoffs is not considered an issue since it is comparable to the NHL 30+ years ago.
  • The schedule does not need to be modified from the current match-ups.

Of course, there are the traditionalists who state things should be left alone. If they come from the East, then they are seen to be protecting an Eastern advantage. Those labelers miss the point about the risk of eliminating the East/West format of the league that is the basis of the Grey Cup.

There is nothing wrong with proposing alternatives to the current state. Rather than propose a single option, though, other ideas should be explored and evaluated, to show the desired idea’s merits. If one does not have metrics, this presents a picture that the broader situation was evaluated rather than a myopic focus on an idea, surrounded only by opinions that support it and no facts.

What all these arguments fail to address are any of the possible negative aspects of these changes. Schedules, Grey Cup, teams, tickets, TV, check! See how good it is! It will work because I say it will work, no supporting metric needed, just my gut feel. Rather, tinkering with the format is driven out of self-interest, with platitudes it will all be ok, while those issuing warnings have the interest and survival of the league at heart. Bring the metrics that prove that the timing of these changes is right, will meet an accepting population, doesn’t create a downward spiral from a positive feedback loop and poses no risk to the stability and survival of the league, you will change people’s minds. Alternatively, accept there are other choices over realignment to achieve the desired goal, which don’t allow for five West teams to make the playoffs every year.

Divisional vs Non-Divisional Attendance

Table 1: CFL Divisional/Non-Divisional Attendance Delta by Era
Era Delta
Overall +2,440.02
1961-1980 +583.34
1981-2000 +3,589.48
2001-2017 +3,272.03

Negative delta values indicate amount non-divisional game average exceeded divisional game average, positive values indicate amount divisional game average exceeded non-divisional game average.

There are other aspects ignored such as the potential for increased travel costs in the playoffs, the impact East-West matchups in the playoffs would have on attendance (non-divisional game attendance has consistently been lower for teams since inter-divisional play was introduced) and the potential long term impact of continual regional matchups in the Grey Cup will have on television viewers and the league in general. Grey Cup viewership fluctuates greatly with the markets in the game, and the formats proposed increase the chance of two small markets meeting in a Grey Cup. Does that make the CFL broadcast rights worth a little less to anyone bidding?

Beyond ensuring the negative impacts of the cure are known, it should first be examined if we are treating the symptom or the disease. There is no statement of how a single division or modified playoffs makes the Eastern teams stronger or ensures competetive balance to the league. A change that results in lost interest in the East and their eventual failure is not good for anyone. The assumption is a single division rewards the best teams, for those years when the best teams aren’t equally distributed between divisions. This ignores the “East has always been weaker, and the West suffers for it” argument presented as to why a change is necessary. One argument is it will always occur, the other says it is just there when necessary. Is this the only way to accomplish this, or do the existing rules provide enough for the expected scenarios, and the issue lies with why the odds of East-West divisional play favour the West. To start to understand, we have to look at the history of full interlocking play and records.

Scheduling Balance

In 1981 the CFL introduced a full interlocking schedule — teams would play teams from the other conference (the CFL switched to a division designation in 1982) twice a season, once at home and once on the road. Announced late in 1979 to take effect for the 1981 season, the change was touted by the league to provide more variety and exposure for fans to teams in the other conference. Prior to 1981, teams had played a single game against non-conference opponents, approximately half at home and half on the road, since 1961.

This “balanced” schedule provided 2 games against each opponent in a 9-team league and a 16-game schedule for each team. It increased the number of interlocking games from 20 per year to 40 (out of 72); the Eastern teams played 10 non-divisional games and six divisional games while the Western teams played eight non-divisional games and eight divisional games. In 1986, the number of regular season games was increased by two to 18 (with a corresponding decrease in pre-season games), with the extra games added as divisional games. In 1987 with the league down to eight teams in two 4-team divisions and Winnipeg shifting divisions on short notice, the schedule was anything but balanced with interlocking play. Winnipeg played a high 11 games against non-division opponents and low of seven games against division opponents while Toronto was on the opposite scale with 10 games against division opponents and eight games against non-division opponents and the other teams in between. In 1988 the schedule still wasn’t balanced, with Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and BC all playing more non-division games and less divisional games than the remainder of the teams. By 1989, the schedule was balanced with all teams playing 8 non-divisional games and 10 divisional games. Examine the standings from 1990-1992 under this schedule and you will see very symmetrical records between the divisions, with neither appearing to be a weak sister in any year.

This remains possible while there is an even number of teams. In years where there are nine teams, including the present period, teams in the 4-team division (in this case, the East Division) play 10 games (5 opponents x 2) or 55.5% of their games against non-divisional opponents while teams in the 5-team division (in this case, the West Division) play eight games (4 opponents x 2) or 44.4% of their games against non-divisional opponents.

A balanced schedule only truly occurred from 1981-1985, when every team played every other team twice. Or was that balanced and do you need an even number of teams to truly be balanced (balanced divisions = balanced schedule)? A full interlocking schedule has occurred most years since, except those years affected by the demise of Montreal noted above and the US expansion years. This distinction is important to make, and clarify whether balanced or even full-interlocking is actually desired by the league. Just because the number of teams allows it doesn’t mean it makes the best schedule.

I propose that this desire to “balance” the schedule ignores the idea of having divisions. The CFL‘s scale (or lack of it), unlike other leagues, limits the idea of scarcity in opponents (more teams than games played, so won’t see them all). A balanced schedule was seen as providing that equal exposure to all teams, providing fans with variety, and very nice symmetry. Then, the schedule length was increased to 18 games, and the symmetry was lost with nine teams. Expanding the schedule was an experiment attempted by the league to address an economic issue and not to be debated here. It is expected that the league would have learned and experimented with the interlocking schedule in the 30 years since, but except when driven by other changes (membership), the opponents frequency have remained largely the same, ignoring the discrepancy in attendance in games between divisional and non-divisional opponents. The number of weeks and byes have been tweaked, but the idea of whether a balanced or full interlocking schedule is necessary has never be questioned.

More precisely, teams should play more games against division opponents than non-division opponents. In larger leagues, this is the standard accepted practice; most games against division opponents, fewer against conference opponents then the fewest against non-conference opponents. In a eight or nine team league and 18-game schedule, this requires an unbalanced schedule (every team will not visit all non-divisional clubs each year).

What does this address? I believe the four team East Division is at a disadvantage competitively and economically playing 44% (8/18) divisional games and 56% (10/18) non-divisional games, while the opposite is true for West Division teams. The discrepancy in attendance for divisional games and non-divisional games affects the East more severely, and results in more travel.

There is a West superiority that exists and leads to calls for single divisions or playoff restructuring. It is easy to see in individual season records. It is easier to point to East support, incompentence, or ownership as causes without anything to back such statements. Rather than speculate, let’s see if we can determine if this has always been the case, and what might be the cause.

If we examine the historical regular season record since divisional play started for geographically eastern teams (HAM, MTL, OTT, TOR) vs geographically western teams (BC, CGY, EDM, SSK, WPG), we see a lower than 50% overall winning percentage. During certain periods examined, Winnipeg, a western team, played in the East Division. Initially, East teams had an above average record against the West. As interlocking play increased, the winning percentage for the East decreased, being below 50% for all eras except for the period spanning 1996-2001. However, in the Grey Cup Championship, the East holds an advantage over the West since 1961. If we eliminate the first era from the Grey Cup calculations, the East winning percentage falls below .500, but since 1986, the Grey Cup when East vs West has been a 50/50 bet.

Table 2: CFL East Record vs West (Geographically)
Era Type - Games - East/West Teams GP W-L-T PCT Grey Cup %
Total 1,722 731-962-29 0.4329 0.5102 (25-24)
1961-1973 Partial Interlocking - 14/16 - 4/5 260 138-114-8 0.5462 0.6429 (9-5)
1974-1980 Partial Interlocking - 16 - 4/5 140 55-76-9 0.4250 0.4286 (3-4)
1981-1985 Full Interlocking - 16 - 4/5 200 70-124-6 0.3650 0.2000 (1-4)
1986 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 40 10-28-2 0.2750 1.0000 (1-0)
1987 Unbalanced interlocking - 18 - 4/4 34 11-22-1 0.3382 0.0000 (0-1)
1988-1992 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/4 166 68-98-0 0.4096 0.5000 (1-1)
1993-1995 Unbalanced matchups - 18 - 4/4 80 11-69-0 0.1375 N/A (0-0)
1996 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 40 22-18-0 0.5500 1.0000 (1-0)
1997-2001 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/4 170 101-68-1 0.5971 0.5000 (2-2)
2002-2005 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 160 70-90-0 0.4375 0.5000 (2-2)
2006-2013 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/4 272 120-152-0 0.4412 0.5000 (3-3)
2014-2017 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 160 55-103-2 0.3500 0.5000 (2-2)

In the last 30 years, Winnipeg has been a member of the East Division for 20 seasons to balance the division membership. Including Winnipeg, a West team, in the East’s record, how does that change things?

Overall, the East’s winning percentage drops both for the regular season and Grey Cup. This seems curious, how could a strong West team have a negative effect on the East record?

Table 3: CFL East Record vs West (by Division)
Era Type - Games - East/West Teams GP W-L-T PCT Grey Cup %
Total 1,699 705-964-30 0.4238 0.4821 (27-29)
1961-1973 Partial Interlocking - 14/16 - 4/5 260 138-114-8 0.5462 0.6429 (9-5)
1974-1980 Partial Interlocking - 16 - 4/5 140 55-76-9 0.4250 0.4286 (3-4)
1981-1985 Full Interlocking - 16 - 4/5 200 70-124-6 0.3650 0.2000 (1-4)
1986 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 40 10-28-2 0.2750 1.0000 (1-0)
1987 Unbalanced interlocking - 18 - 4/4 38 16-21-1 0.4342 0.0000 (0-1)
1988-1992 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/4 164 70-94-0 0.4268 0.6000 (3-2)
1993-1995 Unbalanced matchups - 18 - 4/4 80 16-64-0 0.2000 0.0000 (0-1)
1996 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 40 22-18-0 0.5500 1.0000 (1-0)
1997-2001 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/4 161 86-74-1 0.5373 0.4000 (2-3)
2002-2005 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 160 70-90-0 0.4375 0.5000 (2-2)
2006-2013 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/4 256 97-158-1 0.3809 0.3750 (3-5)
2014-2017 Full Interlocking - 18 - 4/5 160 55-103-2 0.3500 0.5000 (2-2)

Let’s take a look at Winnipeg’s record as an East Division and West division team (the below excludes 1994-1995 from the division eras).

Table 4: Winnipeg Blue Bomber Record as Member of Each Division
Division Team GP W-L-T PCT Grey Cup %.
East Winnipeg (20 seasons) 360 165-193-2 0.4611 0.2857 (2-4)
West Winnipeg (20 seasons) 342 190-151-1 0.5570 0.5000 (1-1)
Control Winnipeg (last 30 seasons) 540 252-286-2 0.4685 0.2857 (2-5)
Control Winnipeg (last 40 seasons) 704 352-349-3 0.5021 0.3750 (3-5)
Control Winnipeg (last 50 seasons) 864 415-441-8 0.4850 0.3750 (3-5)

As an East Division team, a below .500 record, for 20 years compared to as a West Division team, an above .500 record for the same period length. Is this just the result of normal ups and downs of a franchise? The control lines are added for comparison, with Winnipeg’s record for the last 30, 40 and 50 years. It appears, though its times in the East were not contiguous, that by fate they just tended to be an overall worse team during those periods in the East. Or did they play down to their Eastern opponents?

Still, there seems to be something about being in the East Division, with four teams, and a full-interlocking schedule that puts them at a disadvantage, especially in a 9-team league. I can think of factors such as travel along with climate that together could contribute as a factor as much as bad management.

Goals

All of these issues are linked together and changing one affects the others. What are we trying to accomplish? It seems we have these goals:

  1. Competitive league (influences #3)
  2. Schedule that provides for player safety and rest (influences #1)
  3. Schedule that maximizes fan interest and growth (including new fans/new markets)
  4. Able to evolve naturally for the future plans of the league

Schedule, in the context here, encompasses training camp to championship, while interest and growth includes both attendance and media.

This list doesn’t look like it mentions the issues. No mention of an earlier schedule, more byes, a single division or revised playoff format. That is because those are all solutions, not the issues themselves.

Table 5: CFL Regular Season Attendance by Month 2014-2017
Month Games Attendance
June 19 21,963.05
July 72 25,428.39
August 71 24,612.66
September 68 26,843.66
October 73 23,362.63
November 21 24,820.14

2018 will see an increase in the weeks in the season to 21 to grant more byes and eliminate short weeks. An increase in the number of weeks in the season means an earlier start, which puts the CFL in the position of potentially competing with hockey (we can debate whether hockey should be played in June, but they would play 12 months a year if the could). An earlier schedule is supposedly trying to achieve fan interest and growth, but the risk is that the CFL gets lost at the beginning of the season (currently, going to the season opener in May doesn’t have the same appeal as June) and doesn’t recover in the summer months.

Table 5 compares the average regular season game attendance by month for the last four years (2014-2017) in the CFL. June is the weakest month, August drops off from July, and October declines from a strong September but finishes stronger (though a small sample) in November.

A lot of the solutions aren’t treating the symptoms directly. An earlier season has other motives, with a hope that it can drive growth in the Grey Cup and new revenue streams, which is a goal. Single division proposals and restructured playoffs are sold on the basis of a more competitive league, but they do nothing to address competitiveness between teams directly, but are made to reward the best teams, not make teams better. These are the aspects people believe they can change, but they ignore one factor that can also be changed. That is the length of the season.

Shortened Season

Before you stop reading, I realize this is an extreme solution. I, too, would have been opposed to any suggestion of reducing the season in much of the past 30 years. However, in the last five years or so, I’ve started to believe it addresses many of the issues on the table facing the league. So read on with an open mind, as I present the reasoning behind the solution, the obvious pitfalls, and maybe you can develop or pivot on the idea to make it better.

First, let me explain what a shortened solution is exactly. It means reducing the games played from 18 regular season games per team to 16. Hang in there, I will get to the obvious issues with that in good time. There is no corresponding increase in the number of pre-season games, though the CFL could look at adding an additional pre-season game for all teams for players with 3 years experience or less, plus quarterbacks, in the future with a successful negotiation with the CFLPA if that was viewed as helping prepare the players for the season better than today (quality and competitiveness again). In conjuction with a 16-game season, what does this address for the CFL?

  • Player safety - reduced games played. The game is more physical today than when the league expanded to 18 games. Pre-season games remain at two.
  • Same start, shortened season. Three weeks are lopped off todays 21 week season. A June 16th, 2019 weekend start and 18-week season (each team playing 16 games and receiving 2 byes), the season ends October 13th weekend. After 2 weeks of playoffs, Grey Cup can be played first weekend in November. A desire to hold the Grey Cup in October means you only have to move the season up one more week, keeping the start in June rather than mid-May. (Not acceptable? Then more than weather is driving this, likley a US broadcast agreement).
  • Rested players with less wear, fewer injuries provides a more competitive league and protects league assets fans want to see.

In conjunction with reduced games per team, an unbalanced schedule should be used to feature divisional play for a majority of each teams games, rather than simple 8 opponents x 2 games (1 home, 1 away) for total of 16 games. A non-balanced schedule is more difficult, and rotating opponents between teams each season is another challenge. Hopefully, this is temporary and that elusive tenth team is added soon after this change.

Here is an example of an unbalanced schedule with 9 teams and a 16 game schedule. East plays 5 homes games against East opponents and 3 home games against West opponents. The West plays 5 or six homes games against West opponents and 2 or 3 gome games against East opponents.

Example 9-team CFL schedule for 16-game season, showing home and away games against opponents

Here is an example of an unbalanced schedule with 10 teams and a 16 game schedule. Both divisions can play symetrical schedule, with each team playing 5 home/away games against divisional opponents and 3 home/away games against non-divisional opponents. With two five team divisions and an 18-week schedule, there will be 10 weeks of 4 games, 8 weeks of 5 games, and two byes per team per season.

Example 10-team CFL schedule for 16-game season, showing home and away games against opponents

Scheduling and equal divisions is often touted as the critical reason for the CFL to expand. I don’t believe a league expands for those reasons (growth is the only driver), but it does provide the icing on the cake and something the league can then leverage to their advantage, rather than be restricted by the contraints of an odd number of teams.

Now the elephant in the room. The CFL can’t shrink the season without serious repercussions to their economics. Revenues will drop, fewer games means few tickets sold, fewer games means less sponsorship revenue. Broadcasters will request a discount next rights negotiation due to less content. Cost conscious Canadians (that is redundant, all Canadians are cost conscious) would demand their season ticket prices drop, which would reduce ticket revenue. Game and travel costs are proportionatly reduced, but player costs remain fixed unless a corresponding reduction in salaries could be negotiated, which would be contentious. Yes, straight up, it would never fly. It would only create contention between the league and the fans, the players, the broadcast rights holders and the sponsors. That is nothing the league wants at one time. In a fantasyland alternate universe, with the right timing and commitment from fans, the current 18-game schedule transitioning to a 16-game schedule in a single season would address many of the issues the CFL is struggling with less change and risk than other proposals.

The fact is Canadians, including existing fans, hamper the league with their opinion of it. Every year the commissioner faces questions about whether ticket prices are too high. Some of the same fans express desire to increase the salary cap, sometimes by double, come CBA negotiation time. People understandably have a hard time with numbers, with the basis of reducing ticket prices and doubling expenses lines up with expectations that taxes can be cut but services maintained or increased. I’ve had to correct multiple individuals this year, one from Regina, about the CFL being a semi-pro league. When I quoted the minimum salary and top salary range (which exceed their salary), they were shocked, and admitted they developed their opinion from years of negativity and never questioned it. These are fringe supporters of the game, attending one game once and a while and watching the playoffs and Grey Cup if their local team is in it, but even more staunch supporters are oblivious to the economics. Numerous visitors land at CFLdb with the question “Are CFL players paid?”, though this has become less common in recent years. Another Saskatchewan individual expressed dismay that players didn’t do personal appearances for free, and were paid more than a stipend for games. It appears the core CFL supporters see it as some kind of socialism institution for their free entertainment. At some point the script needs to flip, and support needs to occur for increased ticket prices, reduced games, or whatever other revenue generators will drive growth in the league that will lead to the ability to address the issues fans desire. It is simple economics, there is no subsidy for the CFL to keep ticket prices low. If such changes lead to the loss of an older generation as ticket buying public, while bringing in a new generation willing to pay for an experience it may be the catalyst to changing the opinion of the CFL‘s place in the world. I’ll pay for a better CFL just like I will pay for a better washing machine that doesn’t have to be replaced every 3-7 years.

The 16-Game Scenario: A Fable

A conditional Halifax franchise is awarded to begin play in 2022 with the completion of their new 27,500 seat stadium. At the end of the 2020 season, the CFL announces a return to a 16-game schedule starting in 2022. With the addition of the Halifax franchise, the number of league wide regular season games would drop from 81 in 2021 to 80 in 2022. As 2022 coincides with the start of a new television agreement, the current broadcast partner has indicated the change will not affect their bid, and a new agreement is expected to be complete before training camps begin. All existing nine teams have announced season ticket price freezes for the next three years. Prices will not be reduced for the one fewer regular season game, however. The move is being made to increase competitiveness by reducing wear on players and shift the season, and the league and governors believe fans will be rewarded with a better product on the field and better conditions in the stands. Discussions have been held with the the CFLPA, and the CFL has requested a two-year salary cap freeze going into the current negotiations for a new agreement that expires before the 2022 season to help weather the adjustments in revenue expected. The CFLPA has outright rejected this proposal, but the league has outlined the benefits to players a shorter season provides, and holding the line on salaries provides increased game cheques for players as all player contracts will be honoured at face value, and adjustments to pension contributions and playoff compensation can be on the table as part of the negotiations.

A fan revolt forms, with about 10% of season ticket holders in each city joining vocal groups talking to the media and on social platforms calling for the reinstatement of an 18-game schedule and full value for their season tickets dollars. Rather than target the commissioner for resignation, the Torontonian leader of the Restore the Games group calls for the revelation of the CFLdb idiot that came up with this idea, and physical violence. Protests in front of team ticket offices have fans marching with signs with slogans such as “No Money Grab”, “Fans Have Rights”, “Hands Out of my Pockets” on the evening news. A further 40% of season ticket holders are silently opposed, and feel they won’t renew their tickets in 2022. Another 40% figure its the same as they paid last year, and don’t think twice. 10% don’t know the number of home games were reduced from 9 to 8 until middle of the season when the family sitting behind them mentions it.

2022 rolls around, 90% renew their tickets, some with a wait and see attitude. 10% continue to create a PR nightmare for the league, whom they blame for the change, with calls to call-in shows, letters to the editor and ramblings on social media.

Before training camp a new CBA is announced, with a 1-year salary cap freeze in effect, and a minimum $50,000 increase per subsequent year in the cap provided along with up to an additional $50,000 sliding increase tied to league revenue growth starting in year 3 of the agreement. Pension details are adjusted slightly to address fewer games. Both parties are bullish on the changes, a new franchise and an earlier season. The Grey Cup is already sold out.

At the end of the season, average attendance remains in line with previous seasons, with the Atlantic franchise contributing most to the average with over 27,0000 fans per game. Total attendance falls just short of the 2 million mark with one less game than previous seasons. The league states the changes are a success, with revenues only slightly down and expected to be made up in the next season as the changes become more accepted and the benefits start paying dividends.

The product is viewed as better, players seem more prepared to play all season long, and fans soon forget the game and $100 lost it cost them. Balanced divisions and a schedule that emphasizes divisional play produces similar standings in the East and West, with the Atlantic Schooners 2-14 season being the least competitive team. CFL devotees slowly warm to the earlier start and finish, and the league moves the schedule up one week for an October championship finale, while keeping the regular season start in June. Further shifting the start towards the spring is on the table if the right revenue opportunity presents itself to the league.

The next season, buoyed by the lack of any Canadian NHL teams playing in late May, gets off to a great start in June, surpassing the previous years attendance. Throughout the season to the Grey Cup, interest is up and the league exceeds the 2 million regular season fan mark with increases in all the major markets of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The records between the divisions remain comparable, with the top three East teams one win off of their West counterparts. Though the crossover rule remains, the reality of top three teams making the playoffs in each division sinks in with fans, with no merit for five West teams to qualify for the playoffs. The CFL announces a further advancement of the season by one week into the spring starting in 2024. This is to enable a new NFL Network television deal, that will broadcast 45 games from June through August, plus a game of the week on tape delay in September. The playoffs and Grey Cup are sub-licensed to ESPN for broadcast, and additional games are available to be picked up by the network. Expected revenue to each team from the deal could reach almost $1 million annually.

(The above is fictional. It represents no possibility, fact, or actuality, but exists only in the imagination of the author. It should not be referenced for figures, broadcasters or other info as facts).

The Opposition

Reasons why a 16-game season is a bad idea [with counterpoints]:

  • A loss of games (9 games in a 9-team league, 10 games in a 10-team league), reducing exposure and content to be paid for. [Guestimating today’s per game TV revenue, teams would be out $300K per season].
  • Reducing revenue to teams from ticket sales and sponsorships will tax teams on the brink already. [Holding ticket revenue is key, with one thought being holding season ticket prices. Research needs to determine whether there is a stomach for that with a high majority of fans. An earlier season and increased division play may also help offset the absence of a game. Only surveying fans will indicate what their response will be.]
  • Records for last 30 years are based on 18-game seasons. Some records will be untoucable. [Records based on 16-game seasons will become the norm, just like after the increase from 16 to 18 games there was a transition period].
  • It won’t have any affect on the play or player safety. [Two less games must be worth an additional bye, and no short weeks should improve player health. Why not experiment to see the result?]
  • A 16-game season for an earlier season caters to groups outside core CFL support. [Absolutely. Core CFL support has shown to not grow fast enough to enable the league to establish itself outside its traditional markets].

Other Options

There are other alternatives than those mentioned and proposed. Exploring these might provide insight into the root of the issues and a solution.

  • Three divisions
  • Keep the divisions, modify the playoffs so top finishers receive bye, and next best four teams advance as wildcards.
  • Shorten the season, expand the playoffs.
  • Modify the crossover rule.
  • Status quo.

Conclusion

Pure fantasy? Yes, but it creates some perspective on the issue. I look at it and say, for my league, I’m willing to take one less home game if it enables a new era of growth. Sometimes principle isn’t worth fighting for when the end result delivers the benefit all desire (for me, the long term survival and growth of the league in Canada). Professional football has a long tradition of 16-game seasons, the CFL only deviated from it for economic reasons. With cold weather football under question and player safety causing an increase in the schedule length already, why not consider a 16-game schedule instead of a mid-May start? I would prefer a shortened season versus a May start, if it delivers needed revenue streams. If a May start is necessary, it will be hard to get used to, but in conjunction with a 16-game season, does it provide a better product for the markets you are changing for? I willing to listen to other developed proposals, compare and borrow the best parts from all to come up with a solution with the greatest chance of success.

It is not likely a 16-game schedule will ever be proposed (schedule increases have a way of becoming permanent and untouchable, not matter what they do to the game), but with the idea out there, smarter people can say, “But what if…” and throw out another solution and before long, a brilliant idea that checks a lot of boxes, minimizes risk and receives support from a vast majority will be found. Before any idea can be implemented, it has to be validated in focus groups to see how the range of personas the league has and wants to target respond. These temperature tests are difficult as people’s initial reactions to change are often immediately negative, but in time with digestion that change is coming, they provide more valuable feedback and information on what the people value.

If you have an opinion on the proposals the league has presented, or ideas of your own, be sure to tweet out to your teams or contact your team’s governor before the CFL governor meetings in Banff January 11-12, 2018 and make your voice heard. This is our league, it should satisfy our fan’s needs before satisfying any others.

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Earlier Start and Out of Balance was published on January 7, 2018 3:57 PM by dbo.

9,154 words.

This article is categorized under Game and tagged with bye-weeks, divisions and schedules.