CFL's plan to attract new fans: Be the true north strong and free (to express yourself)
TORONTO — At the beginning of the 2018 CFL season, commissioner Randy Ambrosie told CBC Sports it was time for the league to be bolder, bigger and stronger and for “our values to be expressed more clearly and shared.”
As Labour Day weekend approaches, it appears the league and the commissioner are doing exactly what they set out to do — trying to be fearless in their attempt to be something more all while trying to attract new fans.
That brings us to the Diversity Is Strength campaign the league rolled out and really ramped up these past number of weeks. The CFL is making clear the league is ladened with diverse players, coaches and staff who come from all different backgrounds.
In its promotional material, the CFL says it “has a longstanding tradition of welcoming players, people, from all types of backgrounds; from signing the first black quarterback to the first openly gay player, we consider diversity to be an integral part of who we are.”
Over the last month, the league has highlighted 12 representatives to reflect their campaign — from Wally Buono, Jo-Anne Polak, Johnny Bright, Neil Hughes to Joey Moss — these are the people the CFL say best exemplify what the league stands for.
“I think from my vantage point, it’s about the power of inclusion,” Ambrosie said. “That inclusivity that’s been at the heart of who we are as a league has been magical. So many of our greatest players have come from varied backgrounds.”
The aggressive push to highlight this campaign is hard to miss and somewhat strategic in nature.
Freedom of expression
Many have said the CFL season really starts at Labour Day as the temperature starts to change and the games increase in importance.
It’s also when the NFL season begins.
And while the CFL continues to outwardly promote inclusivity, diversity and freedom of expression, the NFL appears to be on another collision course of political pandering and anthem protesting.
The CFL will never be able compete with the popularity of American football. Ambrosie knows that and is making clear that’s not the CFL’s intent — rather, the Canadian league wants to highlight everything the NFL is not.
Take for instance the NFL anthem protest debate. Ambrosie says he’s been watching closely the conversations and heated tension around the issue.
“I am very proud of our league. I’m a consumer of news and I’m aware of some of the powerful forces that are in play around the world. You take notice of that and then turn back to your daily life and say what can I do?”
In light of the back-and-forth between players, owners, and politicians arguing over NFL anthem protests south of the border, CBC Sports asked the commissioner about the CFL’s stance on players protesting.
“We cherish our anthem because of the values it has come to represent. One of those values is freedom of expression. Regardless of whether we liked it or agreed with it, we would absolutely respect our players’ right to express their views in this way, which is peaceful and does not disrupt our game in any way,” Ambrosie said.
“If the words ‘true north strong and free’ are to be truly celebrated, we must honour their meaning, not just their singing. We say this in a sincere and heartfelt attempt to be faithful to those who over the years have fought and sacrificed for our freedom by supporting, in the present day, the exercise of that freedom.”
Attracting the next generation of fans
The other component to all of this is the fact that the CFL knows it has a problem when it comes to attendance. As Canada’s demographics continue to change, the league wants to reflect diversity not only on the field but in the stands.
“We want to be inclusive. We want fans from every walk of life to feel welcome in our stadiums. It has to be part of the strategy because it’s critical to our long term success,” Ambrosie said.
Ambrosie says for far too long the league hasn’t been direct enough about welcoming Canadians to attend CFL games and has relied on the long-term fans to continue showing up.
“You have to start that process by inviting them in. In a world where there are so many countless options for people to spend their time and money, you actually have to put out the welcome mat and invite them into your stadiums.”
And the commissioner says the only way now that the league is going to be successful in attracting the new wave of fans is to continue to promote the diversity he says has been at the heart of the Canadian Football League since the beginning.
“There is an amazing history that this league has had and its been better for it,” he said. “I see the best of Canada in our fan base. That’s the part of this story I love to tell. I see the best of Canada in our stadiums.”