Even as Grey Cup Final tickets for as little as $89 were still being offered on the league’s official website less than 60 hours before the game, CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge insisted the 9-team Canadian Football League “is a big deal”. That phrase summed up Orridge’s closing statements in his annual “State of the League” address to several hundred CFL fans who listened attentively to the Commissioner while he interacted with them for over an hour at a downtown Toronto hotel ballroom Friday morning.
In that informal setting Orridge handled a series of pointed questions from the fans, ranging from league expansion to player safety.
The sluggish ticket sales for the Grey Cup final Sunday at BMO Field were mentioned by several fans in questions directed at the Commissioner, and many wondered if the CFL was doing enough to attract new supporters.
“Our strategy is to keep the fans we have plus attract new fans,” Orridge stated. “Our website, cfl.ca, has doubled in size in 2016. We have relationships with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Our female viewership is up 7% this year.”
One fan was critical of the selection of Toronto just four years after it hosted the 100th Grey Cup and inquired about the process of site selection.
“There are three factors to selecting a host city,” Orridge noted. “To showcase and profile a new stadium, which is what we did here with BMO Field. To engage in a bid process; and to leverage fan engagement. The Grey Cup is so much more than the game. The Festival is part of our culture and tradition. It’s like no other event around the world.”
Officiating was another subject that was addressed on numerous occasions and Orridge told the audience that, while the CFL is proud of the fact that “we’re innovators, we’re leading edge” when it comes to video reviews, he did concede that “we can always better our best”.
Another fan, who frequently travelled to the Maritimes for CFL exhibition games, wondered whether expansion to Atlantic Canada was still a consideration for the league. While Orridge conceded that a tenth CFL team would ease the burden on the scheduler, he said the league is not actively discussing expansion but is “open for business”.
Orridge pointed out there are three key factors in the expansion process: strong local ownership, a suitable venue and corporate sponsorship, and none of those three factors have successfully been met thus far.
Orridge did, however, emphasize the rapid global expansion of the league to other countries via broadcast agreements with ESPN in the US and BT in the UK and Ireland. He indicated Sunday’s Grey Cup game would be streamed to over 150 countries worldwide. Live streaming in Canada, however, is limited because of the nature of the agreement with Canadian sports network TSN, which controls all domestic linear and digital broadcasts of the CFL.
Orridge was very enthusiastic about the recent announcement of the launch of CFL Week in Regina in March of 2017. The new event combines a series of off-season activities into a week long celebration in one venue, similar to the Grey Cup festival.
“It’s a chance to get our fans engaged in the off-season,” Orridge explained, “by putting all these elements together in one place. We’ll have a Fan Expo, the player combine, coaches and GM meetings all in one location.”
It’s just another innovative way, said Orridge, to keep loyal fans attuned to league activity year-round and draw younger sports fans and new Canadians to the CFL product as well.