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  • Reeve Batstone

The Road Less Travelled

A couple of days after my post last week, David Naylor of TSN did a story on CFL kickoff rules. I give him credit. Its not easy for someone in his role to critique the CFL as he is an employee of the league's broadcasting partner and there is a line he must navigate. Purportedly the league has data on injuries sustained on kickoffs. If they indeed have data it should be made public and analyzed by biostatisticians in order for any trend analysis to be credible.


The CFL is famous for its lack of transparency. Generally, if information is not made available, it's because it's either not there, it's a business liability, or it's unflattering and the organization doesn't want to embarrass itself. The CFL's communications gaffes in the last few years are now legendary. They include painfully overreaching for covid funding from the federal government, alienating its core fanbase on the hidden four down debate, and the amateurish and defensive roll-out of its new stats platform with Genius. There are others, like the streaming numbers on TSN and the league's site that have at times remained secret.


Why? Your guess is as good as mine.


The CFL owes it to its fans to prove that it knows what it's doing on any kickoff reform and show it's not just making it up as it goes along and mimicking the NFL, which has distinctly different rules, participants, and field of play. Boomer Esiason was right in one sense. The CFL is not the NFL, and that is often a very good thing. This is probably one of those times. It's cheaper to do it right the first time than to do it over again. If the CFL makes significant rule changes without transparently linking it to data analysis specific to the CFL, they will embarrass themselves again and probably have to walk it back. At the end of the day, it's about good governance and treating your customers with respect.


Speaking of communications follies, the Edmonton Elks were at it again this week. Much has been written about the possibility of privatizing the team. This has implications for the club and its community. It's neither a good or bad thing. It really depends on what problem the Elks current Board is trying to solve. Despite having five brutal seasons on the field since Chris Presson was hired as president, and numerous on and off-field mistakes, the Elks still have several million dollars in the bank. The narrative that the team is now putting out is that the club's number one priority is a new stadium. Does its president think that private ownership is going to solve this problem? Furthermore, is this really the team's biggest problem? I don't think so.


Prior to Presson's arrival the Elks led the league, perennially, in attendance. It necessitated that the upper deck be opened. Until Tre Ford started to perform his magic last season the Elks had gone on a losing streak of epic and historical proportions. The biggest problem the Elks had, and may still have, is on-field performance and off-field leadership. Commonwealth Stadium is not the worst stadium in the league. Both Calgary and Montreal have worse stadiums and it's not even close. It won't matter whether the Elks are privately owned or community owned, Commonwealth is not going to be replaced within a decade, perhaps two or more. It's just not going to happen. So if that is the rationale for selling the team, it's a red herring or naively optimistic.


Can a private owner invest more money into the team? Absolutely. Will they? That is the $50 million question. The Riders are profitable and community owned. They are valued somewhere between $60-100 million. The Ticats are privately owned and valued in the $30-50 million range. The Bombers are community owned and are profitable. Is it really about reducing the influence of community ownership? The community clubs are closely connected to amateur football and their primary objective is to remain solvent. Capital appreciation of team value is not their top priority. Team value is more important to private ownership. Their objectives are not completely aligned and this may affect the league's corporate strategy, if there is one besides the Global experiment.


Interestingly, until the operations cap was introduced it was less likely for a community owned team to fire a struggling head coach. The President has to convince the majority of Board members that firing the coach is a good idea, not just one owner. Community ownership can be more conservative in this area. Would Mike O'Shea have survived a record of 12-24 after his first two seasons in Winnipeg if the team had been privately owned? We will never know for sure, but I doubt it. Ironically, Chris Jones may have the operations cap to thank for his longevity with the Elks with a horrible win/loss record. The Elks reportedly maxed out on severance and are limited by the operations cap.


The Elks have also followed this up with more gratuitous public criticism of Tre Ford this past week. You may recall my previous articles critiquing Chris Jones' public criticism of Tre Ford, and questioning both the value and necessity, if not motivation for this public criticism. It is often said that no quarterback is made in a day but you can ruin one in a day. What are the Elks trying to accomplish? The spectre of degrading the league's only starting-caliber Canadian quarterback and its premiere playmaker is a bad look for the team and the league. It's the kind of thing that makes all Canadian football fans shake their heads in dismay because it's yet another egregious example of the league and one of its clubs that just can't seem to get out of their own way.


As if this wasn't bad enough, Geroy Simon piled on this week, disingenuously saying Tre Ford is "not quite there to be a leader of an organization." Woah. Ford is still on his rookie contract with the Elks. They are getting a starting caliber QB to back up MBT at a discount rate. They really ought to be showing him more respect. Unless Edmonton cleans house, it's hard to imagine Ford re-signing next year, but it would be impossible for the Elks to to replace him right now for a comparable salary. He won't be traded unless a team is desperate for a starter and is willing to overpay for him.


My guess is that Simon jumped into the fray in an attempt to blunt criticism from some of the Elks fanbase that their exciting QB has been benched again in favour of an aging MBT. Simon's patronizing, if not craven, comments about Ford being smart, since he attended the University of Waterloo, may be true, but they are besides the point. These are also comments that would have been risky for Jones to make.

This League does not make it easy for Canadian quarterbacks to succeed, whether they are black or white. Diversity is our strength? Show me, don't tell me. We have all seen much longer leashes for quarterbacks who underperformed or who could not get out of their own way on or off the field. This league needs players like Tre Ford on the field not on the bench taking shots designed to shield management from criticism.

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