State of the league: is Quebec City being seriously considered as an expansion candidate?

TORONTO—It's remarkable how quickly things can change in a few years in the CFL, but that was evident at commissioner Mark Cohon's state of the league address Friday morning. During his opening remarks, Cohon talked about changes for the better in league infrastructure, television ratings, sponsorship revenues and more, both over last year and over when he took the head job in 2007. The most notable change may have been in response to Bruce Arthur's question about his future goals, though, both for the next three years his 2012 contract extension covers and beyond. Cohon outlined numerous goals, but what he said about potential expansion to Quebec City will, and should, get the headlines.

"There's a lot of challenges ahead, from the television contract to making sure Ottawa opens strong and that we get that franchise off on a good footing to thinking about Atlantic Canada or Quebec being the 10th franchise," Cohon said.

From a common-sense standpoint, it's extremely logical that the CFL would consider Quebec City as potential expansion site. That's been a natural market for the CFL to target for years, given the massive growth of football in the province and the phenomenal on- and off-field success of the Quebec-based Laval Rouge et Or. As early as the fall of 2010 when some were talking about massive future expansion, Quebec City seemed like one of the only sites mentioned that was even somewhat reasonable. However, Cohon's discussion of Quebec City Friday represented a vast change from his comments at the same state of the league conference two years ago in Edmonton. Here's what he said then:

Another issue Cohon was asked about by CBC's Malcolm Kelly was why Atlantic Canada is perennially mentioned in expansion rumours while Quebec City isn't. He delivered a bit of a curious response, citing Laval's role in the market.
"One, I think it's the stadium there," Cohon said. "Number two, with the Rouge et Or there, they already have their football there."
He also said that the Alouettes have territorial rights to the entire province, something that surprised many observers.
"Their territorial rights are all of Quebec," Cohon said.
He said he's spoken with Laval officials in the past, but they didn't show much interest in the CFL.
"In 2007, I did have a discussion with officials from the university on expansion money for their stadium, and it was focused on the university, it wasn't focused on building a [CFL] stadium," Cohon said.
Cohon also said the Alouettes might be open to the possibility of a Quebec City team, but it would involve substantial negotiations.
"That would be a negotiation we would have to have," he said. "We haven't had those kind of discussions yet with them, but if we ever did go there, it would have to be a negotiation, because those are part of those rights.
For now, he's focusing on the possibility of Atlantic expansion.
"How do we unite this country and this league coast to coast?" Cohon asked. "One of the potentials is certainly a team in Atlantic Canada."

Thus, in two short years, the tenor of the discussion has changed from "Quebec City belongs to the Alouettes and Laval, so we're only looking at Atlantic Canada" to "Quebec City is a viable expansion candidate." This was not Cohon misspeaking, either, as became clear from his responses to follow-up questions on the subject.

"If you just at a very high level look at markets, Quebec is clearly one of them," he said.

Rather than citing Laval as a barrier, this time around Cohon used the CIS powerhouse as an example of how much interest there is in football in Quebec.

"The success of the Rouge et Or is phenomenal," he said. "They are sort of the blueprint, I think, for CIS football."

In response to a later question about Laval and if their strength in Quebec City is intimidating, Cohon said he thinks a CIS and CFL team there could co-exist.

"I think that shows the basic popularity of CIS in this country," he said. "Any market that you go to, if football is popular there, that only bodes well for the future of a professional franchise."

Cohon did make it clear that talks about Quebec City are merely from a market perspective at this point, not with local officials or potential owners.

"We have not at this point had any conversations with any individuals in Quebec about this opportunity," he said. "I think I'm musing about the potentials and we're going to dig deeper into an analysis of Moncton, Halifax and Quebec City. All of them are major stadium projects, but it's incumbent upon us to look at those opportunities, and naturally, we'd probably look at Quebec City."

Cohon said the near future probably does not involve going beyond 10 teams, though, so it could come down to Atlantic Canada or Quebec City.

"I think the even number is probably best," he said. "It would probably be one or the other. Again, there's no plan in place, but I think if you speak to many of our owners, they have said to me, 'Mark, how do we think about this?' It's been a dream for so many years for this league to get to a tenth franchise. Now we have the opportunity with the stability that we have, with the strength of many of our franchises, to think about those issues."

He said several elements will be considered in expansion discussions.

"All is predicated on a few different factors; building a stadium, a CFL-viable stadium, finding the right owner or ownership group or even considering a community-owned team, so there's a lot of different things in play."

What's clear, though, is that expansion to Quebec City is very much back in play after being a firmly-denied possibility just two years ago. It's interesting to ponder potential reasons there. Is Atlantic progress slow enough that the CFL's trying to use another expansion possibility to motivate leaders in the Maritimes to get something done? Does the league now view strong CIS football teams as complements, not competition? (They'd be right to, from this corner.) Have the Alouettes decided that they'd be just fine with a rival franchise in Quebec City? (Games between the two could potentially be amazing, bringing back the old Canadiens-Nordiques rivalry in a new sport.) Or has the league vetoed the talk of territorial rights that dominated the Quebec City discussion in 2010? Whatever the rationale behind it, the conversation has definitely changed. In two years, expansion to Quebec City has gone from being a subject broached only by inquisitive media and quickly shot down by Cohon to one he brought up unprompted. That could have major implications for CFL expansion.

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