The CFL’s East Division problems—on and off the field

Through the first half of the 2011 CFL season, things looked very good for the East Division, and that was quite unusual. It had been a lousy couple of years for the division as a whole despite Montreal's success, and that didn't appear all that likely to change heading into this season. The Alouettes looked good again, but Hamilton didn't seem to have quite caught up yet, Toronto looked likely to regress from 2010's success and Winnipeg was coming off a CFL-worst 4-14 campaign. Things started very well for the East this year, though, but the more typical pattern of recent years repeated down the stretch, with every playoff team failing miserably heading into the postseason. What's even more concerning, though, is the attendance data, which has all four East Division clubs' average attendances in the basement of the league. What's wrong with the East, and how can it be fixed?

Well, to start with, these aren't new issues, especially on the field. Despite the Montreal Alouettes claiming the 2009 and 2010 Grey Cups, the division as a whole struggled over those years. Eastern teams were a combined 34-38 in the 2009 regular season (including Montreal's league-best 15-3 mark and Toronto's league-worst 3-15 record) paving the way for 8-10 B.C. to cross over from the West and beat 9-9 Hamilton to head to the East Final. Things weren't much better in 2010, as the division again went 34-38 and housed the CFL's worst team (4-14 Winnipeg), although it did manage to hang on to all of its playoff spots.

The first half of 2011 looked much more promising, as Winnipeg got off to an incredible 7-2 start, Hamilton and Montreal began 5-4 and even the lowly 2-7 Argonauts were keeping it close most of the time. The division as a whole was 19-17 at the midway point, but then the bottom fell out. Montreal was 5-4 after the break, but lost their last three games by a combined score of 101-53. Winnipeg went 3-6 the rest of the way, as did Hamilton, and the Argonauts improved from their start, but still went just 4-5 down the stretch. That's a divisional record of 15-21 after the break, leading to the East being a familiar 34-38 on the year. Clearly, the overall issues with the division's teams haven't been completely fixed.

That certainly factors in to the attendance struggles, too. Let's start with the Argonauts,who had a league-worst reported average of 20,018 fans per game (which may be even higher than the real numbers considering reports from their games throughout the years). That's not really surprising considering how tough they were to watch for much of the year. They finally started putting an attractive product together down the stretch, but it was too little, too late to count for much this season. Rogers Centre certainly isn't an ideal venue for them, either, and they're often forced into bad dates there. A smaller, football-focused stadium would be a much better solution, but that's not easy, so they may be forced to work to try and improve their current building instead. Hosting the 2012 Grey Cup should certainly help their sales, but they'll need a compelling on-field product to attract and retain fans.

The other East Division teams' numbers are still troubling, but less so. Hamilton was second-last in the league with an average attendance of 23,676 fans per game, and that's certainly not great, but the Tiger-Cats took a bit of a step back this year. They're also getting a completely new stadium in 2014, which should make for a better fan experience (even if it isn't going to be as big). Meanwhile, Montreal's average numbers are down to 24,058, but part of that may be thanks to the exit of former team president Larry Smith and his controversial attendance reporting strategies, and another part might be thanks to the Alouettes' dominance retreating slightly. Their stadium's in great shape following its 2010 renovations, so there doesn't seem to be a huge issue there, and it can only hold 25,000 fans, so they're not really much below that. Meanwhile, Winnipeg had the division's best attendance by far with an average of 29,561 fans per game, and they're getting their own new stadium next year; with a revitalized team that finished first in the East this season, they should be in pretty good shape for the future.

The key issues on the attendance front seem to be in Ontario, and not surprisingly, Toronto and Hamilton are also where the biggest issues are on the on-field front. Both teams have talented players, but they haven't been able to put together many consistently impressive performances this season, or for the last several seasons for that matter. If the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats (seen battling above in 2010) can make the personnel changes necessary to turn things around on the field, that will probably help start the attendance turnaround, and some creative marketing campaigns (hopefully non-offensive ones) and fan outreach efforts could give them further boosts. In the end, though, most of teams' off-field success comes down to on-field performance, and that's where the East will have to start the turnaround. For now, though, the West is well ahead on both the on- and off-field fronts.