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  • Reeve Batstone

Around the League

Musical chairs

In the background of the Argonaut Grey Cup celebrations has been lots of speculation about who among the Argos will retire or just move on. It would seem likely that Brandon Banks will retire and there are rumours abound that Muamba, Harris, Blake and MBT may be considering it too. The Argos will have their own tough decisions to make regarding healthy scratches like Eric Rogers and Juwan Brescasin. All of these veteran players are at the higher end of the Argo's salary scales. Therein lies opportunity as well as loss. There has also been speculation that the Argos may be interested in Bo Levi Mitchell. Personally, I would be cautious about such a signing, especially at a higher salary level. BLM has had a history of injury the last two seasons and frankly has not played that well behind the league's best offensive line, which gave up a league-low 18 sacks. Over the past two seasons BLM has thrown 19 TDs to 19 Ints. Compare that to what Cody Fajardo had to endure in Sask which allowed a record 77 sacks. In spite of relentless pressure Fajardo has thrown 30 TDs to 24 INTs over the same period, although playing in more games. If MBT does retire the best option to sign, and compete with Chad Kelly, may actually be former Argo, Cody Fajardo. He runs well, is comparatively durable and has protected the ball well considering the unprecedented pressure he faced this past season. He threw the same number of INTs as MBT (13) in 2022. Depending on what Nathan Rourke and BLM do I could see Fajardo landing in BC, Toronto, Edmonton or Hamilton. I can't imagine BLM will be interested in playing behind Sask's offensive line. I could see Chris Jones offering him a boatload of money but every dollar spent on him will be a dollar you can't spend on veteran offensive linemen.

Randy's Roadtrip

The Commissioner held his annual state of the League address during Grey Cup week during which he kicked the can down the road on two of the biggest issues facing the league. One is the declining audiences on TSN broadcasts, driven by their subscriptions falling off a cliff in recent years and the other is the car wreck which is the Global 2.0 initiative. It's impossible not to notice two things which put these problems in dramatic relief. One is the mothballing of CFL Week which had the rare distinction of being a popular event with both the public and media. The other is that TSN is now broadcasting the World Cup while its part owner CTV is also broadcasting it, free over the air. These juxtapositions beg a few questions especially since CTV and TSN are heavily promoting the World Cup hosted in a country many know for its human rights abuses. It’s likely that, similar to the abandonment of CFL Week after Jeffrey Orridge stepped down, the Global 2.0 initiative will disappear ignominiously after Ambrosie leaves the same office. When will that be? Who knows?! These were both signature initiatives, however, only one of them has been a success.

The 2022 Grey Cup TV ratings were announced and despite the league benefitting from a team appearing from the country's largest metropolitan area they are not trending well. The Grey Cup drew an average audience of 3.1 million. In a previous commentary I said that anything under 4 million would be cause for concern with the Argos making the game. The last time the Argos appeared in the Grey Cup (2017) the game drew 4.1 million, previous to that they drew 5.5 million in 2012, both games v the Stampeders. Largely due to cord cutting of TSN the League has been experiencing a steady decline in audience from 2009 when it drew over 6 million viewers. Any other team besides the Argos and the 2022 Grey Cup would have drawn less than 3 million. A lot of casual fans in the GTA who won't go to a game at BMO will watch them in the Grey Cup on TV.

The Commissioner said that the TV contract with TSN would not be revisited until its conclusion in 2026. Four years from now is an eternity in the entertainment business. At the current rate of attrition of TSN subscribers this will mean that CFL viewership in 2026 will be roughly 40% lower than it is today. Extrapolating the last decade's experience into the next four years may see the Grey Cup audience fall under 2 million by 2026. That conjures up images of the CFL circling the drain tied to TSN. To say that is cause for concern is a massive understatement. If CTV is showing World Cup games along with TSN then the CFL needs to make it clear to them both that something needs to be done now if they wish to be a broadcaster after 2026. Where is the risk sharing? What kind of partnership is this? Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with TSN as a broadcaster, but it just can't be your only one when its a shrinking subscriber-based platform.

TSN was founded in 1984 and was desperate for content in its early days. It signed an agreement to air USports games and then later the CFL. TSN has since jettisoned USports in favour of more lucrative midweek professional sports viewing. Once known as the "Darts network" TSN grew its content methodically.

It’s worth looking at how they built their content. They picked up the rights to World Junior Hockey tournaments and the World Hockey championship at a time when they were not widely followed. They cleverly promoted them as destination television over the Christmas and New Year's holidays when Canadians were home and were looking for something in addition to NCAA Bowl games to go with overeating and drinking on Boxing Day. This also came on the heels of the Soviet's Big Red Machine handing Team Canada some humiliating losses at the NHL level. The Juniors did not disappoint and provided solace and revenge for Canadians while Team Canada licked its wounds. Nobody but Canadians care much about the Junior Hockey tournaments but that doesn't matter to TSN or its shareholders. The games are often more exciting than the NHL. They manufactured a Canadian ratings juggernaut at holiday time.

What has this to do with the CFL and TSN? Actually, more than you might think. TSN invested in the development of this tournament with Hockey Canada and its close partner the NHL. The NHL, and for all its warts, Hockey Canada, have been joined at the hip. Previous Hockey Canada CEOs hold or have held senior executive roles with NHL teams (eg., Tom Renney, Bob Nicholson). When was the last time a senior official of Football Canada was even invited onto the same podium as the CFL Commissioner or team? Certainly not at this Grey Cup. I'll bet few people know that the Executive Director of Football Canada is a woman. Shannon Donovan is its Executive Director. An inclusive organization, it also includes two female Board members. That's two more than the CFL Board of Governors. The CFL should be rolling out the red carpet for her. To paraphrase Henoc Muamba, "If you want to travel fast, travel alone, if you want to travel far, travel together." Diversity is indeed strength but so is inclusivity.

There are lessons from TSN and Hockey Canada for the CFL. In 1978 and 1979 USports held something called the Can Am Bowl in Tampa Florida. It featured Canadian university stars vs D1 players in the NCAA playing US rules. NCAA stars like Ben Zambiasi (Georgia & Ticats/Argos), Larry Key (Florida State & Lions) and TiCat's QB David Marler (Mississippi State) made their way to the CFL via this game. Twenty players on the US team from 1979 were drafted, a remarkable fourteen of whom went on to play in the NFL. These games were much closer than anyone predicted. Meanwhile Canada produces much better football players today than it did 40+ years ago.

The CFL needs to redeploy its resources from the ill fated Global 2.0, and with TSN, to create a new "Can Am Bowl," playing under Canadian rules which could be played in BC Place over the winter holidays, or spring break. Players on the American roster could come from CFL negotiation lists. This should be done in partnership with USports, Football Canada, the NCAA, and ESPN. Canadians playing in the NCAA should also be invited to play for Canada.

Most Canadians have no idea that there has been a World football tournament for U 19-year old players adjacent to each year's Super Bowl, because the Canadian media has largely ignored it. Team Canada has won it more than once. It wouldn't be hard to promote a new Can Am Bowl game in Canada featuring the likes of Chase Brown and Kurtis Rourke. If TSN can grow the World Junior tournament it can certainly do it with a football game that can now feature Canadians who are legitimate Heisman Trophy, Cornish Trophy and Hec Creighton Trophy candidates. Americans love football more than anything else which matters to ESPN.

The only Global strategy the CFL should focus on is in the US because it’s the only one that matters. It’s the only country that cares about the forward pass brand of football other than Canada, on a level that can be monetized. The CFL has a modest contract with ESPN, reportedly $200k per year, and ESPN comes with football fans. The CFL draws comparable audiences in the US to the MLS. The CFL should be getting a better deal. Between now and 2026 Ambrosie's priorities should be targeted on four things: getting the CFL games on over the air TV in Canada, increasing the ESPN contract value, mending fences with Football Canada to grow the game domestically, and expanding into the Maritimes or Quebec City. The Commissioner should be measured on these metrics not on introducing an analytics platform like Genius or the number of Global punters and kickers in the league. If Ambrosie's season ending narrative is any indication, the CFL's current priorities are misguided and need to be redirected.

The "Maple Leafs"

Great to see Henoc Muamba win both of the Grey Cup MVP awards this year. Its the second time in the last three Grey Cups that a Canadian has scooped both. Has the time come to drop the Most Outstanding Canadian award and replace with outstanding defensive player?

Finally, many football fans will be following Nathan Rourke's next chapter in the NFL. He will undoubtedly be offered opportunities to compete for a back-up job in the NFL. Anyone who knows anything about scouting quarterbacks will tell you that drafting successful QBs is a crapshoot. Tons of high round NFL picks have gone bust and while many have made their way north in search of redemption, few have found a home. American stars like Art Schlichter, Andre Ware, Cleo Lemon, Michael Bishop, Troy Smith, Vince Young, Todd Marinovich, Eric Crouch, Major Harris, Vince Ferragamo Johnny Manziel, and Paxton Lynch are a few of those who have learned the hard way that playing QB in Canada is a lot more difficult than it looks. Did you know that former Argo Michael Bishop was once ahead of Tom Brady on the Patriot's depth chart? John Hufnagel is one of the very few QBs drafted highly (first round) in the NFL draft that had a successful career in Canada.

Rourke will have his hands full, and not because he isn't good enough. Unless someone ahead of him has a serious injury or he has a head coach like Rick Campbell advocating for him he will struggle to get a shot at starting in the NFL. There are a lot of jobs that hinge on choosing players in the NFL draft. An undrafted quarterback who is behind high round picks is going to have an uphill battle. It’s not like the old days when superstars like Johnny Unitas were drafted in the 7th round and then cut by Pittsburgh, Bart Starr who was drafted in the 17th round by the Packers, or Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, and Jeff Garcia who went undrafted. The most famous QB overlooked by the football experts was Tom Brady who went in the 6th round. Brady, Warner and Garcia are three Hall of famer/pro bowlers who would not have gotten their chance had Drew Bledsoe, Trent Green and Steve Young not gotten serious injuries opening the door to a chance of a lifetime. Garcia also had a family friend, former 49'er coach, Bill Walsh, in his corner. None were expected to be anything more than back ups in the NFL. Don't forget that Warren Moon's first coach in Houston was Hugh Campbell, his coach in Edmonton. This is a long way to say that Nathan Rourke will need to have a lot of things fall in his favour to start any games in the NFL, no matter how good he looks in camp.

Look at what happened to CFL back- up Chris Streveler this year. After doing well in the pre -season he got cut by the Jets. Only injury insurance has brought him back onto their practice roster. No one knows this better than the Kurt Warner of the CFL, and former Argo, Ricky Ray, who once got buried behind lesser QBs on the Jets roster. None of the guys ahead of him got seriosuly hurt and he came back to the CFL the next year. Incidentally it was Nathan Rourke who bested Ray's CFL record for completion percentage this year and came close to Ray's season record for passing efficency. Ray achieved these marks over 11 games in 2013, Rourke did it while appearing in 10 this year. The only QB who has figured out the Canadian game as fast as Ricky Ray is Nathan Rourke. Even Flutie and Moon had a steep, two-year learning curve.

Rourke moves well, is an accurate passer, and makes great decisions quickly but if he has a weakness, it may be his arm strength. Like Brady, Warner and Garcia, it will take a series of unexpected events for Rourke to become a starter in the NFL. Good luck to him. He has the right stuff to succeed but whether he will get the chance remains to be seen. He remains a long shot but he has been underestimated before.

It's been a tough week for the Rourke brothers. Kurtis suffered a knee injury and is gone for the season at OHIO. It will be interesting to see if he returns and transfers to a Power Five school as he will be eligible for the draft in 2024. It has been more than 52 years since a Quarterback was drafted first overall by a CFL team. Wayne Holm of SFU was drafted first overall by Calgary in 1970 but was moved to defensive back where he recorded three career interceptions. In a circumstance that is quintessentially the CFL he had already been drafted in 1969 by BC in the 8th round but refused to report. Holm finished his career with the Argos in 1973, the same year that the Argos drafted McMaster QB Barry Finlay. Three QBs were drafted in the first round that year, one of them, Wayne Allison, joined Barry Finlay and Holm in the Argos secondary. Larry Uteck was soon to follow.

Amazingly, Holm is not the only player drafted twice in the CFL draft. Also in 1970 Leo Cahill mistakenly drafted hockey star, Eric Lindros’ father, Carl, one round after Edmonton had already drafted the TE from Western. One round later Ottawa GM, Frank Clair, added some humour to the draft by asking if Ron Clarke had been chosen yet. CFL Chairman, Greg Fulton, responded, " As a matter of fact, yes. You took him in the previous round." The CFL draft is famous for its egregious mistakes. Who could forget Ottawa drafting a deceased player in the dispersal draft in 1995 or the following year the Alouettes drafting a defensive end in the 5th round who had died several months earlier?! The CFL Draft surely deserves its own 30 for 30 episode from TSN.


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