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The Grey Cup is marched at the start of Fan State of the League in Vancouver November 28, 2014.

The Canadian Football League has always owned its identity – even as it struggled to fill its stadiums, but as Rachel Brady explains, the CFL says it is growing in ways that fly under the radar

It is a game with strange rules, played on a bigger field, with more players and a striped football.

Some see a nine-team league with washed-up NFL players in an oddball game with terms such as "waggle" and "rouge." Others prefer Canada's wide-open three-down game to the American variety, arguing tooth and nail for its entertainment value and talent.

The Canadian Football League has always owned its identity – even as it struggled to fill its stadiums. It inspires passion and patriotism in some and total indifference in others. A newly released study by Sportsnet found that 63 per cent of 1,500 Canadians surveyed called the CFL "an integral part of Canada's sporting identity." But 51 per cent of millennials said it was "not essential."

At the moment, it's a league with no commissioner and a whole lot of work for the next person who fills the job. Jeffrey Orridge stepped down two weeks ago after two years in charge. Both sides said they simply had differences of opinion. The league had known since April that he was leaving. In the face of falling attendance and challenges selling the game and fan experience, the CFL has taken its time to find the right replacement and expects to name someone in July.

Canadian Football League Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge speaks at a news conference ahead of the CFL 103rd Grey Cup in Winnipeg in November 2015. Orridge stepped down two weeks ago after two years in charge.

On Friday, the league was rolling into its first weekend of the season with a Grey Cup rematch between the Calgary Stampeders and defending champion Ottawa RedBlacks, after an off-season that featured an unusually high amount of CFL banter.

That included Orridge's departure; a failed Vince Young experiment in Saskatchewan (the former NCAA and NFL star quarterback attempted a career comeback but injured his hamstring and was cut by the Roughriders); the retirement of one of the league's most beloved quarterbacks, Henry Burris; and a trade that saw Darian Durant, the long-time face of Riderville, shipped to Montreal.

A secret Johnny Manziel workout with the Riders was rumoured – a player not on Saskatchewan's negotiation list. That prompted the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to break with tradition and publish their neg list in a fascinating publicity stunt, revealing they had hoarded the rights to three former NFL quarterbacks – Manziel, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III – should they opt to play in Canada.

A numbers game

Conversation of any sort is good for a league that must reverse a drop in gate sales last year.

CFL attendance fell 3 per cent in 2016 from 2015's numbers, but there was growth in television ratings and social media. The league has infinitely more polish today than in the decades when owners couldn't pay the bills and stadiums were crumbling. But it's still quaint, too, with players working second jobs in the off-season and flying commercial to their games. Canada's nine-team league often looks like a small chain of hardware stores in a marketplace with big-box competitors. The next commissioner will have to steer it to the next level by getting aggressive about new revenue streams.

Last fall, the CFL commissioned a study by independent research firm IMI. It showed that 51 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 69 identify as CFL fans – third place behind the NHL (73 per cent) and Major League Baseball (55 per cent), but ahead of the NFL (46 per cent) and the NBA (40 per cent). That means more than half of Canadians in that key demographic follow the CFL in some way, so the league is trying to engage with and monetize more of them.

"We need a commissioner who is risk-tolerant, willing to embrace new ideas and be aggressive about pushing us toward a brave new future," said Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young, who is also vice-chair of the CFL board of governors. "The nice thing about being a small league is that we can evolve as a group faster than a big institution like the NFL can, but we can't be cautious and slow about it. This is a tough job – we're hard on commissioners."

The IMI research found the No.1 complaint from CFL fans was the irritating amount of time spent on instant video replays. So the league worked to reduce the number of reviews. They added a rule mid-season that has coaches risk a timeout for every flag they toss and had officials shave 17 seconds off the average length of a video review by season's end. TSN went to commercial during 20 per cent of video replays last year, and this year it plans to break during 80 per cent of them.

"We asked fans if we should get rid of video review, and they said emphatically, 'No, but they've got to be conducted better and faster,'" said Glen Johnson, the CFL's senior vice-president of football operations. "We're trying to get back to what the first principles of video replay were when we added it in 2006, which was to stick to fixing things that are indisputably wrong."

Changing the rules

The league has focused in recent years on rule changes that increase scoring. Officials clamped down on excessive clutching and grabbing of receivers, which opened up the field. They let teams signal for the use of an up-tempo, no-substitution offence and enticed coaches to go for two more often by bringing in the two-point conversion line.

After two seasons, scoring rose to 52.9 points a game – up 3.7 points from 2015 and the highest it had been since 2008. Second-down conversions (48.3 per cent) and quarterback pass-efficiency ratings (98.3 per cent) shot up. The average game in 2015 lasted two hours and 52 minutes, three minutes less than in 2014; in 2016, the league shaved another minute off that time. NFL games, by comparison, averaged three hours and three minutes last season.

The CFL experimented with putting live microphones on players and coaches during games, which many of them hated, even though fans liked it.

"Some worried what was said in the huddle would be used against them by an opponent. Well, we can't afford to react that way," Young said. "Coaches and players need to understand that they're in the business of entertaining first and of winning football games second."

Teams have tried hard to dissect the factors behind dropping attendance – a problem many sports franchises are experiencing.

"The league has worked hard with the teams to seek lots of feedback to make sure we're playing on the right nights, and we believe we made significant improvement in the schedule this year," said Mike Franco, senior director of business operations for the Stampeders, whose 2016 attendance was down 9 per cent. "Late starts in our market have shown not to be ideal. Finding ways to get onto people's busy schedules is the biggest challenge we face."

The attendance picture has been complicated, partly because new stadiums in Hamilton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa have decreased their capacity.

The CFL averaged 28,192 fans a game back in 2012. That slipped to 24,691 in 2016. Drops have been steep in Montreal, Edmonton and British Columbia. In a glaring televised example, just 19,176 fans showed up at spacious BC Place to watch their Lions win last year's dramatic West Division semi-final over Winnipeg, so the whole upper deck had to be curtained off.

Ottawa Redblacks Imoan Claiborne, right, and Antoine Pruneau, middle, reach for a ball intended for Calgary Stampeders DaVaris Daniels on Friday, June 23, 2017.

In Regina, Hamilton and Ottawa, attendance is strong. The RedBlacks sold out all 12 of their home dates last year, and the red-and-black plaid wearing crowd rollicking with the chainsaw-wielding lumberjacks shows they've attracted the millennial demographic every franchise covets.

Toronto had a league-worst attendance of 16,380 a game in their new 25,000-seat home last season. But by moving out of cavernous Rogers Centre and into refurbished BMO Field, they also had a league-best increase of 14 per cent and doubled their number of season-ticket holders.

Despite their new digs, the Argonauts played to a 5-13 record, finishing last and out of the playoffs. They were muted by a hectic Toronto sports calendar flooded with huge events and deep playoff runs by the city's other teams.

"The atmosphere in later years at Rogers Centre was underwhelming at best, and we need to keep educating people that things are truly different now in our new home," said Argos president Michael Copeland. "The Argos were under the radar in this city for a long time, and a generation has grown up with very little relationship with the team. We learned that it's going to take a lot of work in Toronto to bring the crowds back, but we believe we're doing the right things in this rebuild."

The new management group, in its second year, has hired Jim Popp as general manager and coach Marc Trestman back from the NFL – a duo who won Grey Cups together in Montreal in 2009 and 2010.

"Toronto is the Mecca of Canada and a place where it's critical for the CFL to have a competitive football team, so I always viewed it as a place – if I ever worked for another team – that I'd find really appealing," Popp said. "I've been in this league since 1992 and I've seen a lot of ups and downs, teams on the verge of being bankrupt.

Saskatchewan Roughriders wide receiver Duron Carter is tackled by Montreal Alouettes's Boris Bede during fourth quarter CFL football action in Montreal on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Believe me, the league is in a great place right now. But families have fallen out of the habit of going to Argos games, and it's going to be hard to get them back, but we've got to get into communities and reach them."

Sluggish ticket sales for the Grey Cup at BMO Field dumped more negative publicity on Toronto. The league seemed to misread the market when it initially set ticket prices between $189 and $899. By October, with half the seats unsold, it slashed the price of the cheapest seats to $89.

A Grey Cup that was expected to be a blowout between Calgary (15-2-1) and Ottawa (8-9-1) meant tickets could still be purchased that week, and some were reportedly given away. As it turned out, the crowd of 33,421 was treated to one of the biggest upsets in Grey Cup history.

"There was a drop in the overall Grey Cup TV ratings compared to [2015], but the average-minute-audience spiked up once people realized it was a competitive, exciting game, and we actually reached more Canadians than we had in the previous year," said Christina Litz, the CFL's senior vice-president of marketing and content. "The data indicates that once people knew it was an exciting game, they tuned in and stayed with it to watch one of the most exciting finishes we've had to a Grey Cup. I have no concerns about the health of Grey Cup."

Younger fans are the key

The CFL says it is growing in ways that fly under the radar. It has steadily built a large digital-content team at its Toronto headquarters, redesigned its website and watched traffic increase 100 per cent last season. Consumption of its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook content has grown too. Young fans snapchatted in big numbers during the Grey Cup, shared shots of replica CFL stadiums they built in Minecraft or commented by the thousands on Instagram photos from players' off-season weddings, haircuts or goofy dad moments.

"It's really easy in downtown Toronto to get a different impression of the CFL than in the rest of the country, but the idea that our league is only popular with the older generation should be totally debunked," Litz said.

"Our research showed tremendous growth on overall sentiment from the casual fan about the CFL and some particularly good growth amongst younger fans. Last year, our regular season broadcast ratings among people ages 18 to 34 was up 30 per cent, and among females we were up 7 per cent."

The league's newest TV commercial debuted this spring with the fitting tagline "Bring It In," setting the tone for the inclusive way the CFL aims to market itself in 2017. The slick ad opens with a girl walking by a park and coming upon some kids playing pickup football. She pulls off her headphones and joins in. A montage of their game is interspersed with footage of CFL action and tailgating fans. There's even a subtle cameo by the CFL's only female assistant general manager, Montreal's Catherine Raîche, hitting her stopwatch as she evaluates players amid a crowd of scouts at the league combine.

Former B.C. Lions’ safety Jason Arakgi, right, looks on as he and other players gather together after practice in Vancouver in November, 2011. Attendance drop offs have been particularly steep in B.C. in recent years.

The CFL partnered with Toronto-based Bensimon Byrne for the spot, the same ad agency credited with helping Justin Trudeau's remarkable campaign turnaround. It is exponentially more refined than the "Our Balls Are Bigger" concept the CFL tried in the nineties.

"They have a very good team at the CFL trying to do very innovative things with the brand right now, and you're seeing more marketing muscle from them," said Cheri Bradish, associate professor of sport marketing at Ryerson University. "You look at their partnerships now, and the Mark's CFL Week they did to stay relevant in the off-season, and it shows they are doing some outside-the-box thinking."

The CFL has a fantasy-football partnership with industry titan DraftKings. They've worked some CFL players into the EA Sports Madden NFL 17 video game but aren't yet ready to venture into a CFL-exclusive game.

The CFL has pushed slowly toward monetizing its content and introducing three-down football in the United States and around the world. It has broadcast select games on ESPN and recently announced it will livestream the entire 2017 regular season in 130 territories outside of the TSN, RDS and ESPN footprint.

"I've admired how other leagues have developed a following around the world, and that's the kind of outreach we need to do globally, because Canadians love things that are appreciated elsewhere in the world.

Fans after Calgary Stampeders' Kamar Jorden, not shown, has his catch ruled a touchdown, nullifying an interception and touchdown by Ottawa Redblacks' Khalil Bass, not shown, during first period CFL action in Ottawa on Friday, June 23, 2017. Officials ruled the play a touchdown. Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It's an idiosyncrasy of Canadian culture that to be a star in Canada we feel you have to be a star in the United States," Young said. "The CFL has to achieve the same respect around the world. And when we do, I think we'll gain additional respect and following within our core market, which will always be Canada."

On the ground, in CFL cities, selling tickets is the top priority, so teams are pumping out promotions. The Eskimos are letting children in free to their home opener. The Lions are offering kids $5 tickets all summer. If you buy tickets to the Alouettes home opener, your tickets to the second home game are half price.

Meanwhile, the CFL's process to hire a new commissioner continues behind closed doors, led by its board of governors and chair Jim Lawson, who is acting commissioner until the job is filled. The person must be a good face for the league, have relationships with corporate Canada, the ability to run the league, bring consensus among the owners and help grow revenue. Lawson says there has been lots of interest from Canada and the United States.

"We want someone who is really passionate about the CFL – who understands it and knows what it means to this country," Lawson said. "The quality of the athletes in the CFL is often very much undersold. Many are interchangeable with NFL players. It's an A-class league, but we have to find ways to meet our market challenges."