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Cultural cringe alive and well in Canada

Mark Spector's "CFL preview" column, an extended rumination on why it's crazy to pay attention to the CFL, may contain a couple of good points amidst the dozen or so clichés—but isn't the central argument frightfully limp?

Let's face it. The Canadian Football League has always been a bit bush league. That is part of what has made it so lovable.

Where else can you watch your kid's high school teacher protect the quarterback, or your financial planner kicking field goals? What other pro league has players who make less money than many of the fans?

I'll answer Mark's question and we'll see if I can get an answer to mine. What other pro league has players who make less money than many of the fans? Well, let's see: this describes arena football, Australian rules football, county cricket, most of the league soccer being played on the planet at any given moment, minor-league and independent baseball, curling, drag racing, sprint-car racing, rugby (both kinds), most European basketball, Korean and Taiwanese pro baseball, rodeo, most mixed martial arts and professional boxing, club chess, and non-PGA tour golf. Admittedly it took me like two whole minutes to come up with that list. Rich professional athletes must be outnumbered about 10,000 to one by the ones who don't play in leagues or associations that have billion-dollar budgets and global reach. I'm afraid I don't see much hope in arguing with the Pareto distribution.

As far as I know, few other countries feel the need to constantly interrogate their own regional and national sporting preferences the way Canadians do. Nor is it considered a bad thing for basketball and soccer that there are many, many competitive basketball and soccer leagues operating at all levels of attention and remuneration. Which brings me to my question: why would it be inappropriate or shameful for a "bush league" to exist in a country that is, by surface area, roughly 99% actual bush?

[LATE BONUS QUESTION #1: Isn't there a certain... well, let's call it tension... between Spector's demand for full-time officials, better stadiums, etc. and his complaints about tacky advertisements on the field? The CFL's supposed to "mature" and, implicitly, compete with the NFL while playing in a smaller, poorer country and rejecting all the revenue sources that the No Fun League finds beneath its dignity? Given its inherent disadvantages, I would favour the CFL wallpapering the field, the uniforms, and Gainer the Gopher's butt with as many ads per square foot as NASCAR or European hockey. Wouldn't that be much more tolerable than selling out the names of public facilities (already being done) and the championship trophy (we're told it's inevitable)? Is there a modest chance it would yield more money for the league than, say, giving Reebok exclusive control of uniform design?

[BONUS QUESTION #2: Spector complains that the league did a piss-poor job of protecting Ricky Ray's safety through disciplinary incentives. Doesn't he know that about 80% of the Eskimo fan base were probably hoping Ray wouldn't get up from the hit? Amazing but true: the Edmonton talk radio airwaves are still, in 2008, dominated by callers who think the repatriated Jason Maas should be starting ahead of Ray. This after Ray won the championship game (his second) directly over their protests in 2005 and remained pretty much the league's top passer until the 15 sacks a night eventually got to him; meanwhile, Maas was going 5-22 as the starter in Hamilton.]


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Comments (15)

I will set aside the obvious comment that the goddamn Ti-Cat defense should have been paying me to have to watch their display of Earthly Detachment tonight...

The inability of Canadians to get behind minor-league professional sport is utterly baffling to me. Minor league baseball, possibly the best entertainment bang for your buck available in North America, drawing huge crowds everywhere in the U.S., has basically abandoned Canada due to public disinterest.

Even minor-league professional hockey, a fantastic display of entertainment stuffed full of elite athletes in their primes, doesn't draw - in a country supposedly obsessed with hockey. (At the same time, thousands crowd to watch teams of teenagers play, teams that would get blown out in the double digits by a good AHL team. I can't understand it.)

Are we really so insecure that the thought that someone out there, somewhere far away, can play better than the guys in front of you, is so crushing that we can derive no joy from it? Even Toronto FC, which again is just brilliant and thrilling live entertainment, gets regularly rubbished for being MLS (and therefore only as good as the second-tier leagues in the big countries).

I think the problem, Colby, runs deeper... people in this country just don't like sport very much.

It might be true, but I take it you see the Popperian problem with it as an actual explanation for anything. "We couldn't sell X to Canadians—it turns out they just don't like X very much!"


Tybalt, I watched the Medicine Hat Tigers in the early 1990s. In 1991-92 the team included Chris Osgood, Rob Niedermayer, future first-rounders Mike Rathje and David Cooper, a gaffe-prone but very talented 16-year-old named Bryan McCabe. There were also a bunch of lesser lights, and trust me, it's more interesting to watch these players when they're young and you can hang a dream on them. By the time they're AHLers they're mostly defined by their limitations, no?

Garnet, I grant that you get more "star power" on a good junior team than in the AHL, but you also saw three lines of guys who are working at the Esso down by the highway now that they're actually grown men.

I'm not much interested in star power, projections, or all the rest of that. I am, though, very interested in watching good hockey. And junior just doesn't do it for me, because compared to even low-level minor pro (let alone the AHL) the hockey is pretty poor.

I would venture that the principal reason that the hockey magnates in Canada have sold junior to us, instead of an interlocking group of professional and/or semi-professional leagues (for which the interest would certainly be there, as it is in every other hockey country) is the key fact that in junior, the workforce doesn't get paid. Major junior is professional sport in every sense except the one fact that the players don't get any money (well, any sensible amount of money). This is a financial goldmine for the owners.


Well, since someone has to nitpick... Gaelic football and hurling aren't professional sports. And though there are certainly ways to interpret the question ("What other pro league has players who make less money than many of the fans?") such that the Australian Football League qualifies as a correct answer, its players make something like $200,000 per year on average, which is several times more than the average Australian.

Come to think of it, though the average CFL salary is probably only high five-figures, that's still well above the Canadian average. It's certainly a good idea for a lot of CFL players to have another job, but I doubt very many of them actually need to. The CFL is, in short, a damned well-paying bush league.

Wow, did Edmontonians not watch a Hamilton game the past two years? I'm hoping that Ray misses a few games this year so another team can experience the raw stench of Maass.

A bit of a segue, but at last night's Ticat game, my Rogers cellphone couldn't get a dial tone for over an hour, compounded by SMSs arriving five hours after they were sent. Thanks Ted and Phil Lind. I guess the money you are using paying over the odds for Bills exhibition games can't be used to set up another tower in the Hammer. Can't we bring in a world class cell phone company instead of your bush league service?

Lord Bob:

Hang on, Mr. Cosh, you live in Edmonton and you're surprised that people argue about quarterbacks a lot? We're Eskimos fans. My dad still thinks we should have given David Archer more of a chance, for crying out loud.

He probably liked Nealon Greene too. Hey, I've called for the starter's head on occasion myself, but I've never had reason to feel embarrassment about doing so later.

I'll take those Irish sports out of the list.

I'll say this for Maas... he has a hell of an arm. Give him lots of fast receivers who can go get the ball, and he looks impressive.

Then you get to meet him off the field, and he is genuinely impressive. He's not at all a dumb or one-dimensional jock stereotype, and he is genuinely nice as well. He also tries really. really hard.

But (and I feel bad about saying this, because I like the guy) he is just plain "football dumb". Plenty smart outside the lines, he becomes confused, panicky, unplanned once the whitsle blows.

Sure, it's no secret what's going on here. Maas looks like a quarterback: Ray has an odd frame and an awkward throwing technique. Maas has an intense work ethic and has struggled heroically with injuries. They're both intelligent and incredibly friendly and they both have good attitudes, but Maas is a little more vocal in the locker room, and Ray is resented for disappearing briefly for an NFL backup job. Moreover, Ray's cause is associated with that of Danny Maciocia, and that's not winning him any extra friends in this town.

(especially not after tonight)

Gord Tulk:

Colby, all of the sports you listed, save perhaps Austrailian rules football, is not a leading national sport - and as Jake points out Aussie rules' salary levels are significantly higher than the CFL's.

Back in the day, the CFL had enough prominence to command both network's attention for the Grey Cup and even then it was 'bush' except for the exiled US black quarterbacks and the odd trophy heisman trophy winner bought by owners on the brink of bankruptcy. It has fallen a lot further behind the premier professional leagues of the world since then, much as the CDN banking system, the CDN telecom sector, the CDN retail sector etc. etc. have. Fer chrissake, they have a minimum quota for how many CDN players there have to be per team - how quintessentally mediocre CDN of it?

The greater observation that Mark missed is that much of CDA itself is 'bush league'. The sooner CDAians learn to get over themselves and the myths of greatness we seem to have of our country the better. Once we do, we will be able to truly work towards entering the world class 'league' of countries.

Might as well toss lacrosse on your laundry list.

If you want to avoid Scottish and Aussie sports, I suppose you could note that there are professional leagues right here in Edmonton paying far less than the CFL: our Cracker-Cats baseball, Chill basketball, and Rush lacrosse come to mind.

Chris Lloyd-Smith:

I see I'm late to the party here but I have a theory, and my theory is this:

The problem is not that the CFL is bush league, the problem is it's American bush league.

Personally I find CIS football much more interesting than CFL. If I want to watch inferior athletes (to NFL) I'd rather drop down one more notch to see guys who are from my preferred local high school or university as opposed to some clown from the U of Akron.

A quick scan of the Argos' roster shows 22 "non-import" players, a bunch of whom played their college ball in the states. So is the import rule 50/50? I don't really care.

There are 27 CIS teams. The best players who don't want to make better money in sanitary engineering could easily populate an eight team league if CFL teams had 90-100% CanCon.

And if the odds of playing pro were thusly increased for Canadians, maybe more high schoolers would choose Laurier over Boise State.

Monsieur Cosh, I'm sure your blood curdles at such protectionism. And I may be dumb. But I'm right on this.

Why? I'm a Canadian football lover who doesn't care about the CFL.


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