The Canadian Football League (CFL)

The Canadian Football League
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Canadian football has a deep-rooted history dating back to the 1860s, and the Canadian Football League (CFL) officially emerged in January 1958. Initially known as the Canadian Football Council (CFC), the CFL has seen its share of successes and challenges over the years. 

The Birth of The Canadian Football League and its  Early Influences

Formed in 1956 as a merger of the Western Interprovincial Football Union and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, the CFL took shape under the Canadian Football Council. 

It quickly became apparent that subtle American influences were seeping into the game. Touchdown values changed, position names were aligned with those used in the US, 

The league’s structure solidified with the establishment of two divisions: the eastern division featuring Ottawa Renegades, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Toronto Argonauts, and Montreal Alouettes; and the western division comprising Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, and BC Lions.

The Canadian Football League (CFL) boasts a rich history, deeply rooted in the traditions of Canadian football. However, its origins weren’t about forging a brand-new league; 

it was about unification. In 1956, a landmark merger took place between the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU), giving birth to the Canadian Football Council (CFC), the precursor to the CFL we know today. 

This merger marked a pivotal moment, solidifying professional football in Canada and paving the way for a national league.

Early Influences and the American Imprint

While the foundation of the CFL was laid through Canadian football traditions, subtle but significant influences from the American gridiron began to seep into the game. 

These influences were likely a result of the growing popularity of American football, particularly the National Football League (NFL). One of the most noticeable changes was the modification of the scoring system. 

The traditional rugby-style three points for a goal and two points for safety were replaced with the familiar six points for a touchdown – mirroring the American system.

Another indication of the American influence was the alignment of position names. Players previously known as “halfbacks” or “wings” in Canadian football started adopting the American terminology, becoming “running backs” and “wide receivers.” 

This standardization likely aimed to improve communication and understanding between Canadian and American football, potentially fostering a more collaborative sports landscape.

Solidifying the Structure: Divisions and Rivalries

As the CFL took a firmer shape, a defining element emerged the establishment of two divisions: the Eastern and Western conferences. 

The Eastern Division comprised teams steeped in tradition: the Ottawa Renegades (now the Redblacks), the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Toronto Argonauts, and the Montreal Alouettes. These teams brought a wealth of history and passionate fan bases to the newly formed league.

Meanwhile, the Western Division boasted a formidable force of its own: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Calgary Stampeders, the Edmonton Eskimos (now the Elks), and the BC Lions. 

These teams quickly established themselves as powerhouses, fostering fierce rivalries that continue to define the CFL landscape today. Each team brought its own unique identity and playing style, creating a dynamic and geographically diverse league.

The creation of divisions played a crucial role in structuring the CFL season. Regular season games primarily pitted teams within their respective divisions, leading to intense rivalries and a battle for divisional dominance. 

However, inter-divisional games were also sprinkled throughout the schedule, allowing fans to witness clashes between Eastern and Western titans, adding a layer of excitement and unpredictability to the season.

Merging Teams: Unifying a Nation

The birth of the CFL transcended the mere unification of football teams. It marked a significant moment in Canadian sports history. 

The league fostered a sense of national pride, offering Canadians a professional gridiron experience that celebrated homegrown talent and unique rules. 

The CFL provided a platform for Canadians to rally behind their teams, fostering a sense of community and shared passion that continues to resonate with fans across the country.

The early evolution of the CFL was a period of adaptation and growth. While American influences were undeniable, the core identity of Canadian football remained firmly intact. 

 The establishment of divisions created a structured league with regional rivalries, and the merging of teams brought together a wealth of talent and tradition. 

As the CFL marched forward, it poised itself to become a beloved national institution, forever etching its name in the heart of Canadian sports.

The Growth of The Canadian Football League

Initially, interdivisional play was limited, but after 1961, east-west rivalries blossomed, acting as a catalyst for the league’s growth. By 1981, both divisions played 16 games in a fully interlocking schedule, and the CFL reached a peak of success, expanding the schedule to 18 games in 1986. 

The league’s nonprofit community ownership model, with only a few franchises privately owned, contributed to its overall success.

The Canadian Football League (CFL) boasts a rich history marked by strategic evolution and a deep connection with its Canadian identity. 

After its formation in 1956 through the merger of the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the CFL embarked on a journey of growth, solidifying its position as a cornerstone of Canadian sports. 

This journey wasn’t solely about on-field action; it was about fostering national unity and igniting a passion for a uniquely Canadian brand of football.

East Meets West

In the early years, the focus was primarily on intra-divisional competition. Teams battled fiercely within their respective conferences Eastern Division boasting the Ottawa Renegades (now Redblacks), Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Toronto Argonauts, and Montreal Alouettes.

 The Western Division features powerhouses like the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos (now Elks), and BC Lions. 

These regional rivalries fueled intense competition, creating dedicated fan bases eager to see their teams reign supreme. However, with limited interdivisional play, a sense of national cohesion remained elusive.

This all began to change in 1961. Recognizing the potential to ignite national interest, the CFL strategically increased interdivisional games. 

This shift proved to be a catalyst for the league’s growth. Fans across the country were finally treated to the spectacle of Eastern and Western titans clashing on the gridiron. 

Witnessing these cross-country matchups not only showcased the diverse styles of play from different regions but also fostered a sense of national pride, as Canadians rallied behind their respective teams in these epic showdowns.

The Schedule 

The success of increased interdivisional play paved the way for a monumental shift in 1981. The CFL implemented a fully interlocking schedule, with both divisions playing a grueling 16-game season. 

This format guaranteed that every team faced every other team at least once, creating a more balanced and competitive landscape. 

Fans were treated to a season teeming with high-stakes matchups, where every win or loss carried significant weight in the race for the coveted Grey Cup.

This schedule change coincided with a peak in the league’s overall success. The 1980s witnessed a surge in fan engagement and national recognition. 

The excitement and unpredictability of the fully interlocking schedule, coupled with exceptional on-field talent, captivated the hearts of Canadians. 

This period also saw the CFL capitalize on the momentum, expanding its schedule to a demanding 18 games in 1986, a testament to the growing popularity of the sport.

Community Ownership

A key factor behind the CFL’s rise to prominence was its unique ownership structure. Unlike its American counterpart, the NFL, which primarily features private ownership, the CFL adopted a community-based model. 

This meant that a majority of franchises were owned by non-profit organizations, often representing local business communities. This model had a profound impact on the league’s stability and focus.

With community ownership, the primary objective wasn’t solely focused on maximizing profit. The emphasis shifted towards fostering a deep connection with local communities and nurturing the sport’s growth within Canada. 

This approach resonated deeply with fans, who felt a sense of ownership and pride in their local teams. It fostered a genuine connection between the league, the teams, and the communities they served, further solidifying the CFL’s position as a national treasure.

The CFL’s journey from regional rivalries to becoming a cherished national institution is a testament to its strategic evolution and unwavering commitment to Canadian football. 

By strategically increasing interdivisional play, implementing a fully interlocking schedule, and embracing a community-driven ownership model, the CFL not only thrived but also ignited a national passion for the sport.

Challenges in the 1980s and American Expansion:

Despite apparent success in the early 1980s, financial troubles loomed. The Montreal team folded in 1987, initiating a period of declining attendance and financial hardships for the league and individual franchises. 

Seeking financial stability, private ownership increased, leading to an ambitious expansion into the United States in 1993. The experiment faced challenges, with only the Baltimore franchise finding success before the league ultimately retreated from American expansion.

The Canadian Football League’s (CFL) ascent in the 1980s wasn’t without its share of challenges. Despite the thrilling interdivisional play, packed stadiums, and a fully nationalized fan base, a dark cloud began to gather on the horizon of financial troubles.

Financial Strain

The early 1980s witnessed a surge in popularity, but beneath the glistening surface lurked financial vulnerabilities. 

The excitement and fervent fan support couldn’t entirely mask the underlying economic realities of running a professional sports league. 

Factors like high player salaries, rising operational costs, and the lure of competing entertainment options began to chip away at the league’s financial stability.

A stark example emerged in 1987 when the Montreal franchise, a cornerstone of the Eastern Division since the league’s inception, folded due to financial difficulties. 

This served as a stark wake-up call, highlighting the precarious financial state of some teams despite the overall positive momentum. The Montreal collapse sent shockwaves through the CFL, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the league’s future.

Declining Attendance

The financial woes weren’t isolated incidents. They started manifesting in declining attendance at some stadiums across the league. 

The initial excitement of the fully interlocking schedule began to wane, with some fans feeling a sense of fatigue from the longer season and potentially repetitive matchups. 

Additionally, the rise of competing entertainment options, coupled with the growing popularity of the National Football League (NFL) with its vast resources, started to siphon away some of the CFL’s dedicated fanbase.

Private Ownership

In the face of these challenges, the CFL leadership recognized the need for adaptation. One significant shift involved a change in ownership structure. 

The community-based model, while fostering strong local ties, was deemed insufficient to weather the financial storm. As a result, the league began to embrace private ownership, hoping to attract investors with a stronger focus on generating profit.

Driven by the desire for financial stability and a wider audience, the CFL embarked on an ambitious venture in 1993 expanding into the United States. 

The league saw the potential to tap into a vast American market, hoping to replicate the success of the NFL’s model. Franchises were established in Baltimore, Birmingham, Memphis, Las Vegas, and Shreveport.

However, the American experiment proved to be a gamble that backfired for the most part. Cultural differences, logistical complexities, and fierce competition from established American sports leagues hampered the CFL’s efforts.

Only the Baltimore Stallions managed to achieve some level of success, eventually winning the Grey Cup in 1995. But even their victory wasn’t enough to sustain the venture.

By the late 1990s, the American experiment had largely fizzled out. The financial burdens and logistical nightmares proved too much to overcome. The CFL was forced to retreat, leaving behind a trail of unfulfilled promises and lost resources.

The CFL’s story in the 1980s is a tale of both triumph and tribulation. While the league achieved its peak success during this period, it also grappled with financial hardship, declining attendance, and the ill-fated American expansion. 

These challenges forced the CFL to adapt and evolve, paving the way for a future where it would prioritize its core identity and Canadian fanbase.

Survival and Recent Success:

Though the US expansion failed, the CFL survived through financial injections from expansion fees and a renewed US cable TV contract in 1996. 

The league implemented a salary cap to address financial issues, and by the late 1990s, attendance grew, sponsorships increased, and television ratings improved. 

The 2002 season marked a significant success, with previously folded teams making comebacks and a renewed collective agreement with the Players’ Association.

Current Challenges and Future

The CFL faces challenges such as declining attendance in certain cities and a need for a positive perception in Toronto.

Nevertheless, the CFL remains an integral part of Canadian sports culture, with the Grey Cup game and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum serving as enduring symbols of its legacy.


The Canadian Football League’s story isn’t just about touchdowns and rivalries; it’s a chronicle of resilience, adaptation, and unwavering dedication to Canadian sports identity. 

From its humble beginnings to navigating financial hurdles and the American experiment, the CFL has emerged stronger, forever intertwined with the hearts of Canadian fans. 

As the league continues to evolve, its rich history and commitment to fostering national pride through exciting on-field action ensure its enduring position as a cherished Canadian institution. 

FAQs about How The Canadian Football League

  1. When was the Canadian Football League (CFL) founded?
  • The CFL formally began its existence in January 1958, emerging from the Canadian Football Council (CFC), which was established in 1956.
  1. How many teams are there in the CFL?
  • The CFL consists of nine teams:
  • Ottawa Renegades
  • Hamilton Tiger-Cats
  • Toronto Argonauts
  • Montreal Alouettes (eastern division)
  • Winnipeg Blue Bombers
  • Saskatchewan Roughriders
  • Calgary Stampeders
  • Edmonton Eskimos
  • BC Lions (western division).
  1. Did the CFL ever expand into the United States?
  • Yes, the CFL attempted expansion into the United States in the 1990s.
  • The teams were established in cities like Baltimore, Shreveport, Las Vegas, Memphis, and Birmingham.
  • However, the American expansion faced challenges, and most US-based teams folded after the 1995 season.
  1. What is the significance of the Grey Cup in the CFL?
  • The Grey Cup is the championship game of the CFL and holds immense significance.
  • It has been played since the league’s early years and typically takes place in the last two weeks of November. The Grey Cup game is a highlight of the Canadian football calendar.
  1. How has the CFL addressed financial challenges in its history?
  • The CFL has faced financial difficulties at various points. The league has implemented measures such as a salary cap, private ownership for certain franchises, and, in the past, attempted expansion into the United States to inject much-needed funds.
  1. What are the current challenges facing the CFL?
  • Presently, the CFL is dealing with challenges like declining attendance in certain cities, particularly Vancouver and Hamilton. Additionally, there is a need for a more positive perception of the CFL in Toronto