The excitement is building in Winnipeg, Manitoba as the days count down to Sunday's 94th Grey Cup. Each year the two top teams in the Canadian Football League meet to decide who gets their names engraved on one of the oldest championship trophies in North America.
It was donated and named after the Governor General of Canada, Albert Henry George Grey, the 4th Earl Grey in 1909 to recognize the top amateur rugby-football team in Canada. It wasn't until 1954 that it became the official trophy of the Canadian Football League (CFL). The title game pits the champions from the East and West Divisions against one another — and when everything is right in the world, a team from Eastern Canada against a team from Western Canada.
While there are quite a few differences in how the games are played, the big difference between the American and Canadian versions of football is money. Canadian football is still mainly dependent on gate receipts for its revenue, as there just isn't the population base in Canada to warrant the huge amount of television money available to the National Football League. Many players in the CFL have jobs in the off-season as only a few on each team even make the minimum salary offered in the NFL.
The dream of every commissioner of the CFL is that he will negotiate an American television contract that is more then just subscriber based or on ESPN7 along with competitive lawn mowing and watching the paint dry. It's unfortunate, but for some reason the Canadian version of the game has little or no following south of the 49th parallel.
Even when American teams like the Baltimore Stallions were winning the Grey Cup, little or no interest could be raised outside of the cities in the States with a team. In fact, even with Baltimore winning a championship, interest was so low that the team folded and eventually was resurrected as a new incarnation of the Montreal Alouettes.
The major problem faced by the CFL is the perception that it is somehow a lesser version of the game than the one played in the States. But it's not — it's simply a different version of the game, where emphasis is placed on speed and agility rather than brute strength.
Hence the larger-sized field.
The Canadian football field is 110 yards long and 65 yards wide, compared to 100 yards by 53-1/3 for the American. The end zones on the Canadian field are anywhere from 15 to 20 yards deeper, while the goal posts stand on the goal line instead of in behind the end zone.
In fact, a ton of rules are different:
• In the Canadian game, teams have only three downs (instead of four) to convert a first down.
• A team can field 12 players (instead of 11) at once.
• Instead of only one player in motion before the ball is snapped, the team can have all offensive backfield players (except the quarterback and a player at either end of the offensive line, usually a wide receiver) in motion.
• Prior to the snap, teams must be a yard from the line of scrimmage, (rather than a mere football length from each other).
• Punt returners cannot call for a fair catch, but the kicking team has to allow a five-yard comfort zone around the return man until it is touched by the receiving team.
• A missed field goal or a punt touchback is worth one point, provided the return team cannot advance the ball out of their end zone.
• A receiver can only be bumped by a defender a yard beyond the line of scrimmage (rather than five yards allowed).
Although a lot of the rules in the CFL might seem silly (awarding a point for missing a field goal for example) they all work towards keeping the action moving as much as possible. In a close game, a missed field goal or a non-returned punt from the end zone can make the difference between winning and losing, so there is more of a likelihood of a runback attempt. Teams kicking field goals have to be prepared for that because they can and do result in touchdown returns.
The NFL game emphasises a slow and methodical approach of ball control, gaining ground in small increments with the occasional big play. The Canadian game can see a team go the length of the field in three plays. That's not to say there isn't a running game in the CFL, because there is, there's just more emphasis on rollouts then drives straight up the middle.
The CFL was once seen as the place where guys not quite ready for the NFL went to get experience, but that is happening less and less. Occasionally a Doug Flutie or a Warren Moon will make the transition from a starting role in the CFL to the NFL but the differences in the games are making it hard for established NFL stars to adjust. Former NFL running back Ricky Williams is only the most recent example. But there were also college stars like Anthony Davis, who was a complete flop at running back, and Vinny Testaverde, who proved the Canadian game is not designed for a pocket quarterback.
In the 1980s and early 1990s it appeared that the CFL was on life support. American expansion had proven to be a disaster, no teams east of Manitoba were making money, and it looked like only a matter of time before the plug would have to be pulled. But in the intervening years the league has managed to stabilize three of the four teams in the Eastern division (a team in Ottawa just went down for the third time with not much hope of it ever resurfacing) and revitalize interest.
Instead of trying to fill mega stadiums like Montreal's Olympic Stadium, they've gone back to their roots of being community-based teams playing in smaller stadiums. The team in Saskatchewan — the Rough Riders — are probably the only publicly owned professional sports team in North America. The popularity of the Montreal Alouettes has led to such renewed interest in football in Quebec that college teams from that province are now the top ranked in Canada.
The CFL will never be the major business that football has become in America. It'll never sell millions of dollars for 30-second commercials during a Grey Cup broadcast. But that does not make the game better or worse.
So if you're an American sports fan this weekend and you're looking for something a little different from your normal Sunday football, why not see if you can find whichever ESPN station has elected to broadcast the Grey Cup this year and check it out.