The Canadian Soccer League has a time-tested story of resilience and opportunity to tell, or rather sell, to its target audience, which this year includes American free agents who have never had so many job options.
The two eight-team spring leagues – the USFL and the XFL – can provide work for about 1,000 players, most of whom are Americans who still hope to turn exposure into legitimate National Football League shots.
Competition for players has never been fiercer, and CFL headquarters may have to assist its nine teams in their recruiting efforts. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said league officials, team presidents, GMs and head coaches will discuss strategy this week during their winter meeting in Kananaskis, Alta.
“Is there a role for us to do more recruiting, marketing, league-based awareness strategy, making sure those athletes and agents know us?” said Ambrosie.
“We have a great history of being a great opportunity for players. Some of the greatest successes in our history have come from players in the US who have come here to become big names.”
There are CFL insiders who believe the league should go back to its history and tell the story firsthand at events like the annual coaches’ convention and US college bowl games.
“Right now the team is in attendance (at bowl games) as we are looking and seeing players,” said BC Lions co-GM Neil McEvoy.
“In the past, the league did a kind of meet and greet with players to give them information. The reality is the more information and the more comfortable players have, the more of them want to show up. Right now I sometimes find our staff, and I believe it’s the same as any other staff, not only having to sell teams, but leagues and countries to some American players. I believe in the 80s, maybe early 90s there was more presence and I don’t know why it disappeared.
New Montreal Alouettes reserve boss Jason Maas, an American who has been in the CFL as a player and coach for 20 years, sees the sales job as a collective effort, and important.
“I think we all sold our leagues every chance we got, and I think it’s a great league. We have a lot of history. It has been ongoing. So anytime you’re fighting for a better product on the pitch — and our players are everything, our players make our league — you want the best people available to come here. Really, you just want to make sure they understand how great this league is, so it has to be a collective effort. That includes players.
“This is a great league that showcases their talent and it’s there. Other than the COVID year, we’ve been quite sustainable with what we do and the products we put out on the pitch. I think they know what they are getting with this league and there is consistency.
“Now, there are more choices. That’s a big thing. If you are a businessman, which free agent should be, you should look at everything before making a decision. But in the end I think our league is great and the players understand what they are getting when they come here.”
The bottom line is the bottom line for many players trying to support a family with the result of a short average career span.
The XFL will pay its active player wages $5,000 per week for a 10-week season, plus benefits and bonuses for regular season wins. The USFL says it pays $5,350 US per week in salary and $400 weekly to cover housing.
In the CFL, minimum wages have risen to $70,000 CDN this season. At its peak, there’s a lot of money to be made, and the story doesn’t always come out.
“Players need to understand that we had receivers who made $300,000 in our league last year,” said Calgary Stampeders GM/head coach Dave Dickenson, referring to the Edmonton Elks’ Kenny Lawler.
“One thing I think we have to do is make the players aware of our league and not only the players but also the agents. Does that mean we attend coaching conventions and all-star games as a league? That would be fun, so players recognize that Canada is an option for them and a great one.
“But I think the best signing we have is to treat our players well. They go back to their universities and their county, and if they recommend the CFL as a really good league, that to me is the best signing we can get.
Word of mouth has been profitable, but the CFL wanted to make sure the story reached thousands of potential players. There are an average of between 20 and 25 seniors on every college team in the US—and there are about 900 football programs—so the audience is huge. CFLs need an efficient way to reach them.
“Every US college has a pro liaison,” said Ottawa Redblacks GM Shawn Burke. “If we can get some help, maybe the league has the ability to pass our information about each team and how it works to those people, and them provide the (senior) information on each roster, that will give us an opportunity. to show off our league to them and go from there.
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