The History of the Canadian Football League (CFL)

The History of the Canadian Football League (CFL)
-Image Source CFL News Hub

The Canadian Football League (CFL) stands as a beacon of gridiron passion in the North, carving its own identity while offering heart-pounding action for over a century. Though the National Football League (NFL) holds considerable appeal, the CFL thrives in its niche, captivating a nation with a rich, storied past.

The CFL’s story stretches back over a century, boasting a lineage intertwined with innovation and unwavering national pride. 

Unlike its American counterpart, Canadian football possesses a distinct character, born from a fascinating interplay of tradition and adaptation. 

Its roots trace back to the mid-19th century when early games resembled a rugby-football hybrid. Over time, the sport underwent a metamorphosis, influenced by American football while retaining its own set of rules and strategies.

 The Iconic Grey Cup

 The iconic Grey Cup, first awarded in 1909, stands as a testament to the league’s enduring legacy, symbolizing the pinnacle of achievement in Canadian football.

The 1950s witnessed a pivotal turning point with the formation of the CFL in 1958. This unification of Eastern and Western teams under a single governing body marked a significant advancement, streamlining operations and fostering a more competitive environment. 

The CFL inherited the prestigious Grey Cup, solidifying its position as the premier professional football league in Canada.

Beyond the on-field action, the CFL thrives on its passionate fan base. Each team represents a distinct city, igniting fierce rivalries and a sense of national pride that transcends wins and losses.

The thunderous cheers echoing from the stands, the vibrant team colors, and the sea of dedicated fans all contribute to an unmatched atmosphere that sets the CFL apart.

The CFL’s commitment to fostering homegrown talent also adds an endearing layer to its story. The league provides a valuable platform for Canadian athletes, nurturing their skills and offering a pathway to professional gridiron glory. 

Witnessing domestic stars rise through the ranks and showcase their talents resonates deeply with Canadian fans, fostering a sense of ownership and connection to the league.

The Origin  (19th Century)

The captivating story of Canadian football, often referred to as “gridiron football” for its distinctive playing field, boasts a rich history deeply intertwined with the nation’s cultural fabric. 

Unlike its American counterpart, Canadian football possesses a unique identity, born from a fascinating collision between tradition and innovation. 

To truly appreciate the modern Canadian Football League (CFL), we must delve into its intriguing past, a journey that began in the mid-19th century.

A Rugby Football Hybrid (1861-1900)

The year is 1861, and the seeds of Canadian football are being sown. Early accounts document informal games resembling a hybrid of rugby and football, played by British regiments stationed in Montreal. 

This nascent sport quickly captured the imaginations of Canadians, spreading across the vast expanse of the country within a few decades.

A pivotal moment arrived in 1884 with the establishment of the Canadian Rugby Football Union (CRFU). This governing body aimed to standardize the rules and foster growth across the burgeoning sport. 

However, the early years remained heavily influenced by rugby, with games featuring a larger playing field, more players, and a scoring system that differed from modern football.

The Transformation: The Early 1900s

The turn of the 20th century witnessed a critical shift in Canadian football’s evolution. As exposure to American football grew, Canadian players and administrators began to explore its faster pace, higher scoring, and more strategic elements. 

This fascination with the American game and a desire to carve a distinct identity for Canadian football fueled a period of experimentation and change.

The Burnside Revolution

A defining moment arrived in 1903 with the introduction of the “Burnside Rules,” named after their champion, University of Toronto captain J.G. “Longboat”  Burnside.

 Inspired by American football but retaining key Canadian elements, these new rules revolutionized the sport. The number of players on the field was reduced, the playing field narrowed, and the forward pass was legalized with restrictions. 

These changes laid the foundation for the fast-paced, high-scoring style of play that continues to enthrall fans in the CFL today.

While the Burnside Rules significantly altered the on-field product, another crucial development was taking place off the field: the rise of professional football leagues.

 In 1907, the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) emerged in Eastern Canada, featuring teams from Ontario and Quebec. 

Nearly three decades later, the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) was established in the West, encompassing teams from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

These unions initially functioned as semi-professional entities, with players receiving stipends to offset lost wages during the season. 

However, as the sport’s popularity soared, the leagues gradually transitioned towards full professionalism. This paved the way for the establishment of the modern Canadian Football League (CFL) in 1958, a historic event that unified eastern and western teams under a single governing body.

Innovation and Identity

The journey of Canadian football from its rugby-influenced beginnings to the modern CFL is a testament to the enduring spirit of innovation and adaptation. 

While the sport clearly draws inspiration from American football, it retains a distinct character. The larger playing field with twelve players per side,

 The three downs to gain ten yards rule, and the rouge point system (awarded for a single point when a defensive team punts the ball into their own end zone) all contribute to a more strategic and action-packed viewing experience.

Canadian football also boasts a rich tradition, exemplified by the iconic Grey Cup, first awarded in 1909. 

This prestigious trophy remains the ultimate prize in professional Canadian football, signifying a team’s dominance and solidifying its place in gridiron history.

In summary, understanding the history of Canadian football allows us to appreciate its unique character and enduring legacy. 

From the early rugby-inspired games to the revolutionary Burnside Rules and the rise of professional leagues.

 The sport has continuously evolved while retaining its core identity. As the CFL continues to captivate fans across the nation, the echoes of its fascinating past resonate within every play, every touchdown, and every thrilling Grey Cup victory.

The Unions  (Early 20th Century)

Serious organization arrived in 1907 with the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) in Eastern Canada. 

Nearly 30 years later, the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) emerged in the West. As the decades passed, both leagues transitioned from amateur to professional, paving the way for the modern CFL.

Birth of the Canadian Football League (1958):

The year 1956 marked a pivotal moment in Canadian football history. The seeds of unification were sown as the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU)

 And the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) joined forces under the banner of the Canadian Football Council. This collaborative effort paved the way for a more streamlined and cohesive professional football landscape in Canada.

Two years later, in 1958, the story culminated in the birth of the Canadian Football League (CFL). This landmark event formally unified the eastern and western teams under a single governing body, solidifying the CFL’s position as the premier professional football league in Canada. 

The newly formed league inherited the prestigious Grey Cup, a cherished symbol of gridiron excellence that continues to be the ultimate prize for CFL teams today.

The unification not only streamlined operations but also ushered in an era of increased competition and national recognition for the sport. 

The CFL fostered a sense of national pride, with teams representing various cities across Canada, igniting rivalries and passionate fan loyalty from coast to coast.

The birth of the CFL was a strategic masterstroke. It fostered collaboration, eliminated regional fragmentation, and provided a solid foundation for growth. 

The league’s commitment to upholding the legacy of the Grey Cup further solidified its place as the ultimate battleground for Canadian football supremacy.

The Expansion (Late 20th Century)

From 1958 to 1981, the CFL boasted nine stable franchises. In 1993, however, the league embarked on a bold expansion to the United States, welcoming teams like the Sacramento Gold Miners. 

While initial enthusiasm existed, the American experiment proved unsustainable, with all US teams eventually disbanded. Despite the challenges, the expansion provided valuable learnings and reaffirmed the CFL’s Canadian identity.

Memorable Moments

The CFL’s history is punctuated by unforgettable moments and legendary figures. The 1954 “Mud Bowl,” played in torrential downpour, remains etched in fan memories. 

Quarterbacks like Jackie Parker, Russ Jackson, and Doug Flutie captivated audiences with their skill and charisma, while the 1989 “Greatest Grey Cup Ever” showcased the drama and excitement intrinsic to the CFL championship.

The CFL has constantly adapted to changing times. Recent years have seen the league embrace technology, enhancing the fan experience through digital platforms and interactive content. Inclusivity and diversity are also prioritized, promoting initiatives that celebrate Canada’s rich multicultural tapestry.


The Canadian Football League (CFL) isn’t merely a sports league; it’s a cultural touchstone. As it marches forward, the CFL’s vision is clear:

To amplify its passionate fan base, showcase the prowess of Canadian athletes, and solidify its place as a beloved cornerstone of Canadian sports culture.

The league understands the importance of cultivating its passionate fanbase. From engaging youth programs to innovative fan experiences, the CFL is committed to fostering a deeper connection with its supporters.

  This dedication ensures the electrifying atmosphere in CFL stadiums continues to be a hallmark of the league.

Furthermore, the CFL serves as a vital platform for nurturing top Canadian football talent. By providing a stage for domestic players to shine,

 The league fuels national pride and inspires future generations of gridiron stars. Witnessing homegrown heroes light up the field fosters a sense of ownership and unwavering support for the league.

The gridiron legacy of the CFL is far from over. It’s a legacy etched not just in championship victories, but in the mud, sweat, and unwavering passion that defines Canadian football. 

Bonus Nuggets:

  • Did you know the CFL field is slightly larger than the NFL’s, favoring the passing game and creating a unique style of play?
  • The Toronto Argonauts hold the title of the oldest professional football team in North America, dating back to 1873!
  • The invention of football in Canada can be traced back to British regiments playing informally in Montreal during the 1860s.

FAQS about the Canadian Football League (CFL)

1. What’s the difference between the CFL and the NFL?

  • Field size: The CFL field is slightly larger, with 110 yards vs. 100 yards in the NFL, impacting strategies and favoring the passing game.
  • Players: CFL teams have 12 players per side vs. 11 in the NFL, leading to a faster pace and more open spaces.
  • Scoring: The CFL has three downs to advance the ball compared to four in the NFL, adding urgency and excitement.
  • Rules: Several unique rules in the CFL like the rouge (single point for kicking the ball out of the end zone) add strategic diversity.

2. When was the CFL founded?

  • The CFL was officially formed in 1958 after the merger of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU). However, football’s roots in Canada date back to the 1860s.

3. What’s the Grey Cup?

  • The Grey Cup is the CFL’s championship trophy, awarded annually to the winning team. It’s considered one of the most prestigious Canadian sporting events, similar to the Super Bowl in the NFL.


4. Who are some famous CFL players?

  • The CFL boasts a rich history of legendary players, including quarterbacks like Jackie Parker, Russ Jackson, and Doug Flutie, as well as iconic figures like Weeb Ewasko and Terry Fox.

5. Is the CFL popular in Canada?

  • Yes, the CFL enjoys strong popularity in Canada, holding a special place in national culture and identity. While the NFL also has considerable fans, the CFL remains a cherished tradition, drawing dedicated support across the country.

6. Did the CFL ever have teams in the USA?

  • Yes, from 1993 to 1995, the CFL briefly experimented with expansion into the United States with teams like the Sacramento Gold Miners. However, the venture proved unsustainable, and all US teams were eventually disbanded.

7. What’s the future of the CFL?

  • The CFL is constantly evolving, embracing technology, promoting inclusivity, and showcasing top Canadian talent. It aims to solidify its position as a cherished national institution while adapting to changing times and maintaining its unique brand of gridiron excitement.