Calgary Stampeders players Jabari Arthur, Quincy Butler and Marvin White meet fans and sign autographs prior to the annual CFL Labour Day Classic game between the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders in Calgary in September 2012. (Photo: Larry MacDougal/CFL)
It is a steamy July afternoon in Hamilton, Ont. On a
scorched field near creaky Ivor Wynne Stadium,
football coaches and parents from nearby Welland
prepare sausages on propane barbecues and sip whoknows-
what from red plastic cups. Earlier today their
Peewee- and Atom-aged players had the run of the Hamilton
Tiger-Cats’ field. Now, the children are parading the
Niagara Regional Minor Football Association’s banner
around the tailgate party inside a fenced-off park, much to
the delight of the fans revving up for a game against the rival
“The kids are having a blast,” says first-year junior coach
Tim Puttman. “I’ve been down to Buffalo Bills games,
but it’s more of an adult thing. Here, it seems more
Now, it is almost game time at Ivor Wynne. With the
player introductions set to begin, the stands are about two-thirds full, and beyond the bleachers to the west,
the steel plant smokestacks belch grey plumes over Lake
Ontario. Cheerleaders form an aisle near the end zone, and
the Ticats starting players jog through one by one, followed
by the rest of the team, their entrance punctuated by fireworks
shot out of a machine on the field.
Welland’s young football players spring into action, hurrying
to stretch a giant Canadian flag across the football
field just as a singer begins the national anthem.
True patriot love . . .
How to tell whether you’re watching football in Canada
B.C. LIONS Mascot: Leo the Lion. Legend
has it that Leo grew up in
a den in the North Shore
Mountains. Not to be confused
with Leo the MGM
movie studio mascot.
You know you’re at
a Lions game when . . .
the roar of the crowd gives
B.C. the dome field
EDMONTON ESKIMOS Mascots: Nanook the Polar
Bear and Punter the Football.
Of the two, Punter is the more
unsettling; he looks like Mr.
Potato Head as imagined by
You know you’re at an
Eskimos game when . . .
a touchdown is scored and the
sirens wail, the inflated igloo
shakes and Punter spirals into
the hot tub.
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS Mascots: Buzz and Boomer
the Birds. Two indeterminate
breeds of birds with a taste for
sunglasses and slapstick. Buzz
is the extrovert.
You know you’re at a Blue
Bombers game when . . .
the Touchdown Plane circles
the end zone in “Swaggerville”
to celebrate Bomber success.
TORONTO ARGONAUTS Mascot: Jason the Argonaut.
This dancing warrior is a budding
video star on YouTube.
You know you’re at an
Argonauts game when . . .
you are being entertained by
Argonotes, the team’s all-volunteer
pep band, who are
known to continue their
tuneful celebrations outside
Gate 2 after the game.
CALGARY STAMPEDERS Mascot: Ralph the Dog.
Known for his six paws, three
tails and taste for Eskimo Pies.
Top breed among CFL mascots,
having signed on in 1974.
You know you’re at a
Stampeders game when . . .
the Touchdown Horse hits
a full gallop and the rider
whoops it up, looking as
if she’s been tailgating
ROUGHRIDERS Mascot: Gainer the Gopher.
Wears a jersey with the number
13 to signify the 13th
rodent . . . uh, man on the
field. Has more than 1,500
“Likes” on his Facebook page.
You know you’re at a
Roughriders game when . . .
the leather-lunged faithful in
Section 28 taunt opposing
players, fans join in on “Paint
the Whole World Green” and
watermelons are the head
covering of choice.
HAMILTON TIGER-CATS Mascots: T.C. and Stripes the
Tigers. Stripes makes you want
to reach for a sugary cereal.
You know you’re at a
Ticats game when . . .
the fans need no excuse to
join the cheer — Oskie wee
wee! Oskie wa wa! Holy mackinaw!
Tigers, eat ‘em raw! —
and the old-timers pine for
the return of the original
MONTREAL ALOUETTES Mascots: Touché and Blitz
the Larks. The younger and
more impetuous of the two,
Blitz was once assessed an
objectionable conduct penalty
and fined for bumping a
game official during a touchdown
You know you’re at an
Alouettes game when . . .
the Als pick up 10 yards and
the fans join the announcer
in joyously declaring,
Premier essai, first down,
Junior cheerleaders in shimmering gold tops scurry to
their posts on the field. They crouch as the Atoms hurriedly
haul the flag over them. Remarkably, not a single girl is
bowled over as the flag is pulled from one 10-yard line to the
next. Working together, the cheerleaders bob beneath the
flag and the players pump their arms to create a wave motion
until the anthem concludes.
There’s a quaint informality to this production compared
with the flawless choreography on display at a National
Football League (NFL) game in the United States, even in
the league’s hinterland of Orchard Park, New York, home to
the Buffalo Bills and just an hour’s drive from Ivor Wynne.
And perhaps this is the way it should be. Although the
administration of Canadian Football League (CFL) commissioner
Mark Cohon and a strong group of owners are
managing the league with slick professionalism, the Bull Durham moments dotting CFL history have always been
front and centre. Only in the CFL would you hear of a team
drafting a deceased player, of a general manager boasting
about his closet full of shoes and challenging a reporter to
a boxing match in the same radio session, of one franchise’s
nickname being “Roughriders” while another’s was “Rough
Riders,” of a grocery store chain sponsoring a contest on
a national broadcast even though the chain has stores only
in the West, of a newspaper revealing that the owner of one
team also owns another.
Amazingly, after the near-bankrupting expansion into the
United States in the first half of the 1990s, the CFL is doing
just fine and dandy. Television ratings are up; attendance is
stable. The league has compensated for its public relations
gaffes with an often exciting brand of football featuring
pass-happy offences — touch football in pads. In the early
part of the 2012 season, scoring, at an average of 55 points per game, had increased 10 percent over 2011. More than
63 percent of the games were decided in the final three
minutes, and seven of the first 16 games ended with a margin
of four points or less. The CFL is in the midst of
a resurgence that would have seemed highly improbable
10 years ago and, outside of Toronto, is enjoying an uncharacteristically
long run of stability.
“In tough times, there is no substitute for tradition and
track record,” says Brad Pelletier, a sports marketing expert.
“When the economy was red-hot, the CFL was on weaker ground. Now the economy is challenged, and the CFL is
on solid ground. There’s less competition for the dollar, and
people gravitate to admired brands when times are tough.”
This November, the CFL celebrates its history by staging
its 100th Grey Cup game, in the city that gives its local
football team the least support of any franchise: Toronto.
The Argonauts drew barely 20,000 fans on average last
season, down one-third since 2005. Crowds are sparse at
the Rogers Centre this year as well. Professional sports
leagues, says Pelletier, are obligated to prop up their weakest franchises, and Toronto now qualifies as the weak link.
Toronto as a locale makes business and historical sense.
The majority of Grey Cups have been held in the city, starting
in 1909 in what is now Rosedale Park. The league is
trying to get the most out of Grey Cup attention by pouring
$1 million worth of promotion into the southern Ontario
area, where the existing CFL fan base hardly reflects the young
and multicultural makeup of this part of the province.
The game will deliver a slice of Canadiana. “Nothing
brings Canadians together quite like the Grey Cup,” says
CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon. “It’s more than our
national championship. It’s a national pilgrimage.
Thousands come each year in person, and millions join
them through television, to celebrate something that is
uniquely, intensely and proudly ours.”
The Grey Cup 100 Tour on Twitter
Back at the pre-game party outside Ivor Wynne,
the Welland youths parade a team banner past a group of
tailgaters known as CFL Fans Fight Cancer. They are selling
scarves and similar products, with the Ticats’ co-operation,
to raise funds for Welland House, a cancer-care facility. On
this day, a husband and wife have driven in from Winnipeg
to support the cause. Several Argo fans indulge in a coronary-
tempting concoction called a “bacon explosion,”
which consists of cheese, sausage and several layers of bacon, all washed down with chilled beer from the cooler. They’re
grateful that the police have exempted this fenced-in field
from tough open-container laws that put a damper on
traditional tailgating festivities.
“This is a way for people across Canada to come together,”
says Ken Mitchell, who works with Welland House.
“We have a difference of opinion for three hours. It’s a big
community event. And we’ll go to Toronto too, have dinner
and talk football.”
Inevitably here in southern Ontario, talk about Canadian
football turns to the American game and the NFL. It has
been this way ever since 1874, when Harvard smacked
McGill in home-and-home games played under rugby-like
rules. Canadian football is defined by how it is different
from the American variety: a longer and wider field; a
plumper ball; three downs instead of four; and a rule stipulating
that 20 players on the 42-man playing roster must be
Canadian or at the least, begat by Canadian parents.
Canadian football is tethered to its American counterpart,
first as a source of talent — in a TSN poll, 39 of the
league’s all-time 50 greatest players were American — and second as an indirect competitor. The CFL’s expansion into
U.S. cities such as Sacramento and San Antonio in the
1990s taxed the league to such a state that a $3 million
interest-free loan from the NFL was needed in 1997 to keep
the CFL afloat. As recently as four years ago, the CFL proposed
that the NFL take an ownership stake in the league.
Ultimately, the CFL can always pull the nationalism card
from the bottom of the deck. Even if we don’t actually
watch the CFL religiously, there is the tendency to push
back when a threat is apparent. There’s a feet-shuffling
sheepishness about supporting a game that could be the first
bullet in the gun that kills the CFL. The league has
unashamedly tapped into the patriotic sentiment with its
marketing slogans: “Radically Canadian” and, the most
recent, “This Is Our League.”
Standing on the hard-baked field, Jason Allan wears
a plaid kilt in the Ticats yellow and black team colours and
a black T-shirt with letters on the back spelling Box J Boys.
He is positioned beneath a beige canopy that is erected in
the same place before every Tiger-Cats home game, carving
a roast pig that has been cooked in herbs, hot peppers and
a lot of garlic. Around him, men wearing the group’s signature
T-shirt drink beer, laugh, eat and goad.
“We let Argo fans in here too,” says Allan mischievously.
“Just toss a little cyanide in their food.”
Allan helped form the Box J Boys in 1992 when the
Tiger-Cats desperately needed community support, with
the club facing apparent extinction due to financial woes.
It’s a tightly restricted group, with 20 members now, friends
of friends, and on this day, they are accompanied by women
and children. Back then, the Box J Boys could have written off the Ticats and simply become loyal Buffalo Bills fans,
setting up the barbecue on Sundays in Orchard Park.
“The franchise was in dire need back then,” says Allan.
“But that’s when fans need to get together to support their
team. I find tradition is the first thing that goes. We’re
bringing the little ones in now, so when we get older, they
can cook for us.”
He pauses an instant, flicks some pork into an aluminum
“The CFL is different,” he says. “I look on the league as
a homecoming, with extended family and friends across the
country. They don’t get that community feeling in the States
like we do here.”
I'm very disappointed with the CFL. When you turn on just about any American station you can find an NFL game anywhere. But here is Canada the CFL wants you to support them but they put all their games on one of those specialty channels (TSN) and expect you to pay for it. I haven't seen a CFL game for years. If you want me to support the game then put it on a channel for every Canadian to see!
Disappointed in this article. If the purpose is to attract new fans to the game, it failed. Nowhere is there a breakdown of what cities the teams are in, how the league is organized (East vs West) and which teams are in which division(?) if it is called a division? It's all very well to enthuse about mascots and parking lot parties, but some BASIC information would have been nice for someone who wants to START paying attention. The tone of the article assumes that the reader should already know a lot about the league. As I was reading, I had many (novice) questions that just did not get answered. So I give up, I'll just wait for the hockey players to come back.