CFL Needs a Piece of “The Rock”
By Mike Toth
Is the Canadian Football League dead?
But, thanks to the gruesome pandemic, it's definitely on life support.
Now, however, "The Rock" might be riding to the rescue. Pro wrestler, Hollywood icon, future American president?.....Heck! If "The Donald" can win Washington, why not "The Rock"?
But before he takes a run at the White House, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has trained his focus on football - recently purchasing the XFL from his old wrestling boss, Vince McMahon. In the days since that sale, "The Rock" has been linked to a potential partnership with the CFL - a struggling league that's in danger of sitting out it's second straight season because of COVID.
It sort of makes sense.
Before he became "The Rock", Johnson was a pretty good football player. A defensive lineman in the early-90's for the powerful University of Miami Hurricanes, Johnson later had a tryout with the CFL Calgary Stampeders. At training camp, he roomed with a bunch of other rookies in a cheap Cowtown apartment and desperate for improved sleeping accommodations, they spotted a couple of mangy old mattresses in a nearby trash bin and hauled them upstairs.
It shows you how dramatically things can change, as the only thing "The Rock" is hauling in these days are buckets full of cash.
Speaking of how things have changed, welcome to the CFL. There was a time when the league owned a solid piece of the Canadian sports scene - even, believe it or not, in big city Toronto. My old Calgary "Sports at 11" TV partner, Grant Pollock, grew up in Toronto cheering for the Argos and often regales me with tales of how big the Boatmen once were.
Grant's favorite player?
Mel Profit, a strapping tight end out of the University of California with flowing golden locks, a big moustache, and a hippy personality that fit right into the "Flower Power" mentality of the late-60's and early-70's. Profit was part of a thrilling Argos squad that also included colourful characters such as coach Leo "The Lip" Cahill and future Super Bowl quarterback Joe Theismann - a team that captivated Toronto sports fans and packed the seats at old Exhibition Stadium.
It's not like that anymore - not even close.
In September of 2019, the Argos played one of their final home games before the pandemic shut the whole world down. My buddy Grant was in town, so we hooked up for the game at BMO Field. It was a gorgeous autumn night, perfect for football, as the Argos hosted the Stampeders…..in front of an "announced" crowd of 9,819 - and no, there probably weren't even that many people there. What an embarrassment, and what a shock to Grant who grew up in a city where the Argos could once make the legitimate claim of sharing the sports stage with the Maple Leafs.
But Toronto isn't the only city where the CFL is struggling.
Major markets such as Montreal and Vancouver also face huge headaches when it comes to putting bums in the seats and remaining relevant with a younger generation of sports fans. Even some of my media buddies in Calgary, a pro-CFL city, tell me that, compared to the NHL Flames, it's hard for the Stamps to pick up any consistent talk radio buzz.
That's where "The Rock" comes in.
"The Rock" is all about buzz. Even if you hate the soap opera style and cartoonish aspects of pro wrestling, you can't discount the marketing genius of the WWE. When it comes to branding, the CFL and the WWE aren't even in the same zip code and a little smell of what "The Rock" is cooking would be a huge benefit to Canadian football.
So what exactly would be on "The Rock's" menu?
Star power, for one thing.
I take my two teenage sons to a few Argos games every year. But outside of Pinball Clemons, who hasn't laced up a cleat in over twenty years and is now the team's GM, I doubt they could name a single member of the modern Argos roster.
But they definitely know who "The Rock" is.
My guys are also big fans of the just-over-the-border Buffalo Bills - especially now that the Bills aren't just a bad joke. Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Tre'Davious White - the Bills are suddenly stacked with Super Bowl potential and star power that the Argos and the rest of the CFL struggle to compete with.
At least "The Rock" would give them a fighting chance - if the old school CFL crowd gives him a chance, that is. Because with Johnson's marketing savvy, you know he's going to want to shake things up.
How about a combined XFL- CFL "super league" with the Grey Cup winner meeting the XFL's American champ in a "winner take all" final?
Or, horror of horrors, what about getting rid of the Canadian ratio? CFL fans have been waiting for over 50 years for the next Russ Jackson; chances are, he's not showing up. But if he does, at least he'll have earned his quarterback spurs rather than being slapped on the roster because he's a token Canadian.
This is pro sports.
Only the best of the best deserve the chance to play, no matter where they come from. The Maple Leafs, for instance, are Canada's most beloved hockey team. But their most popular player is a kid of Hispanic heritage who hails from Arizona. No one cares about his birth certificate; as long as Austin Matthews keeps ripping wrist shots into the net, Leafs Nation loves him.
What about a move to four down football, with the XFL-CFL becoming a true April-August feeder system for the NFL? And if you can access some of the NFL's billions to help bankroll the project, why not?
We're trying to fight our way out of a frigging pandemic, people, and it's time to change the playbook.
I realize there are still a bunch of old CFL fans who wax poetic about bringing their wineskins to the Grey Cup while they freeze their butts off on a wintery prairie day in November.
But the "good old days" are long gone and the pandemic has put the entire CFL in jeopardy.
So when you're caught between a rock and a hard place?
The smart thing to do is choose "The Rock".