Last Monday the CFL made official what people had been speculating for months… there will be no 2020 season. I will add that the definitive news did come within hours of my Monday post. So you are welcome for getting some closure on this for you.
So the 2020 season is a no go. It’s super sad but honestly not surprising. Now the focus is on 2021 and ensuring the CFL survives. Look, there is no guarantee fans will be allowed in the stands by June 2021 so we can’t just assume that this will be a one-year pause and life will return to normal. Given that CFL seemed to approach plans for the 2020 season with all the speed of that sloth from Zootopia at the DMV, they had better start now.
All I have been hearing about for the past week is how the CFL needs to fix its business model. Everyone has suddenly become business guru and is schilling their ideas on fixing things (some are good, some are stupid). What else is stupid is this notion that the CFL can suddenly reinvent its business model. Like people magically assume that there is a way for the league not to be dependent on ticket sales, TV money and sponsorship like every other sports league in the world. Look, there are certainly things the CFL can do to improve its viability but those expecting an overhaul of its business model will be very disappointed.
I’m going to let you in on a business secret. There is only 2 ways to improve your business model. 1 – Increase revenues. 2 – Decrease costs. That’s it. I just saved you 10s of thousands of dollars on a business degree. Any idea proposed is just a variation on one of those two things. The CFL is and (at least in the short term) will remain a gate driven league. TSN is not suddenly going to start paying gobs more money for the TV rights they already contractually own. So let’s go through ideas (both good and stupid) for how they can actually improve on things. And by improve I mean incrementally because again, a fundamental shift in business model is not going to happen.
Partnership with the Players
This should be priority one. Everyone knows that the players are what drive this league. That’s who fans pay to see and that’s whose off-field work in the community endear them to this country. Yet time and time again the owners treat them like expendable garbage. Look, management is well within their rights to run things as they so choose and treat players like easily replaceable minions who should shut up and play. It’s been working for them for years. But there are consequences to that approach. Read pretty much any study on employee engagement if you need proof of that. Engaged employees will lead to better business results.
Now I work in human resources and have been at bargaining tables. Regardless of industry management always wants less union involvement in running things and unions always want more. The sweet spot is always somewhere in the middle. And to be perfectly honest unions often times make stupid demands and management is right in not always bending to their will. But if the players are truly the lifeblood of your business then at least keeping them somewhat happy would be a good business approach. There’s no guarantee the outcome would have been any different but I guarantee the CFL’s chances with the Federal government would have gone up significantly if CFLPA present Solomon Elimimian had sat beside Ambrosie and presented jointly in the first ask. It’s proven to be an effective strategy for the owners to give the players very little and then just hold out long enough for the cash needy majority of the PA to give into the meagre offerings. But thing how much better this league could be if they treated the players with even a fraction more respect off the field.
We all know players are more important than coaches to the success of the league as a whole but one group has things like guarantee contracts, payouts if they are fired and year round income even during a pandemic… and its not the supposedly most important group.
Make Stars Out Of the Players
Building on the above partnership, if the CFL is serious about growing their fan base they need to market their superstars better. Casual fans who know nothing about golf and would normally not watch, will tune in to watch Tiger Woods. Same with football and Brady, Brees, Mahomes etc… LeBron and basketball and so on. No one outside of CFL fans knows CFL players, so you get no casual fans. The league is full of marketable stars: Fajardo, Hughes, Jefferson, Reilly, Adams, … hell I would be that drunken, fur coat Streveler is more well-known than the actual good players in our league. Market their onfield excellence. Let them show their personality. Highlight the great work they do off the field more. Get them on talk shows. Have them endorse products (I still remember Roberto Alomar telling me to “Catch the taste”). The more notoriety your players have, the more casual fans you attract.
They also need to sell former NCAA stars more in the states. College fans are fiercely loyal and if they knew some of their alumni where still playing you may get more casual fans.
In order to really market stars, you can’t have them change teams every year. If guys like Narco, Reed and Dressler were one and done, they never would have reached legendary status here. Fan connections to players drives interest and drives merchandise sales.
For example, as a Habs fan (yeah what can I say I have poor choices in sports teams) I would love a Carey Price jersey… but as the owner of PK Subban and Mike Camelleri jersey I’m convinced that if I ever did that I would curse Price and he’d be gone within a week. A lot of people approach CFL jerseys this way.
The fix for this is 2 fold. First, the CFL needs some form of restricted free agency. This strikes a good balance of letting your young players maximize their earning potential with letting teams keep stability by matching offers. Second is guaranteed money. If I was a CFL agent I would call my client an idiot if they signed anything but a 1 year deal unless the multi-year deal gave them more cash in year 1 than the 1 year deal. You gain nothing by signing a long term deal. If you values goes down the team will cut you and year 2 and 3 of your deal will be useless. If your value stays the same you can easily renegotiate the same contract next year (so you lose nothing). If you value goes up, you are stuck making less. Owners need to incentivize players to sign longterm deals. This will put the football ops guys in conflict with the business side guys as from a football ops view the current system is ideal but if you want to grow viewership and revenue, the business side needs stars to market. Coaches get guaranteed contracts, why can’t your top end veterans?
Look I get those of you saying pause the focus on this given the whole pandemic thing, makes sense. But for goodness sake don’t give up completely on this idea! It is risky and it will take time but the potential payoff is there (if it was easy, guaranteed money, someone else would have already done it). I don’t get how the same people can scream at the league to reinvent its business model and then the berate Randy Ambrosie when he tries. The CFL needs to grow its fan base and there are limits to how much you can do that within Canada.
Here’s a completely hypothetical example to demonstrate (all numbers are purely for illustration). Let’s say the CFL has a fan base of 1 million and they want to double that. In the Canadian market (let’s assume half of Canada is potential sports fans) that would mean increasing their market share by 6 percentage points within an already saturated market. Any marketing person will tell you that would take a huge amount of effort and time. But it we expand potential market to include Europe and Mexico (again assuming half the population is a potential fan) they only need 0.23% of that market. Far more achievable. Again, not easy or quick but I think this idea has merit and needs to continue. Now just may not be the time aggressively expand it.
The CFL needs to tap into what Christmas retailers inherently know: The key to getting people to spend money is making their kids want something. Most of us are fans now because we experienced CFL football as kids and got hooked. But the CFL has priced itself out of the market. For a family of 4 to go to a game its 100s of dollars in tickets plus 100s of dollars for a solitary small pop and popcorn. Particularly in a down economy that won’t work. Since no one is selling out (not even the mighty Riders) teams should all have massively discounted tickets to get bums in those empty seats. What you lose in premium ticket price you make up in food, merchandise and the beginnings of life long fans. Also, each stadium needs a cheap menu. I don’t mind having expensive options as well but at a minimum there should be an option for a cheap hot dog, drink and popcorn. Keep it affordable and families will come.
Also you need to engage kids… and not just the ones in the expensive front row seats. If your “family” tickets are in the second deck then the kids up there should have equal access to time on the jumbo-tron, Gainer and giveways. Since the new stadium opened, not once has a camera or prize ever come up to our area of the second deck. That stuff is like crack to my kid and he would be hooked for life for 10 seconds on screen or a crappy t-shirt or football. Go to a Pats game and you will see K-9 all over the arena and kids love him. They get it. Engage all parts of the stadium not just the lower bowl.
I’m not talking about the Rider approach of put a logo on literally anything you can find (though that did the team pretty well), but with traditional gate revenue at risk you need to look at new ways to suck money out of fans. The one that always comes up is a video game which seems like a no brainer. There is already a company that has developed a football game you can play with Canadian rules: Canuck Play and Spear Interactive. They even have Doug Flutie endorsing it. I bet they would like to become officially CFL licensed.
I know its pie in the sky thinking but if the CFL wants to act like the big four it needs athlete endorsed shoes, gloves, clothes etc… I know that Banks’ might not have the same allure as Curry’s or Jordan’s but you gotta try.
Lastly (and this isn’t really merchandising) but you need actual fantasy football… not that garbage pick’em stuff. Half the people tuning into NFL care nothing for the actual outcome and only if their RB gets a minimum of 70 yards and a TD. Pick’em is okay if you have nothing else but I want a real fantasy draft, weekly head to head match-ups, watching garbage time in a blowout to see if a 4th string receiver can get me the 5 yards I need to win and mock my friends. A Canadian company made this a few years back: Fantas-Eh and even pitched it to the CFL. But the passed on it. More fantasy players = more viewers.
I’ll pause here as this post ended up being way longer than expected. Check back tomorrow for Part 2.