Why so secretive, CFL?

One of the big stories in the CFL season's first week has been secrecy, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders electing to close two practices a week to fans and the Calgary Stampeders electing to bar both fans and media from a 40-minute segment of Thursday's practice. From this corner, Saskatchewan's move seems particularly unnecessary and heavy-handed, while Calgary's is more understandable, but still debatable. However, these are just the latest secrecy-related issues in the CFL, and they're minor compared to some of the other ones out there. Teams blocking fans from practices is annoying, but it would be much easier to overlook if the league would take a few other steps to reduce its overall veil of secrecy. That would provide extra ways to engage fans across the league and level the playing field for all teams, a desirable outcome.

On this week's specific practice issues, it's Saskatchewan's decision that's particularly concerning. The Riders have long been famed for their accessibility, and that's a huge part of why they have such a tremendous fanbase. They also tend to have more fans come out to practice than most teams, and that's a valued connection for many of those fans; don't underestimate the impact letting fans watch the team practice and personally connect with players afterwards has on the team's bottom line, from merchandise sales to ticket sales. How do they justify it? Well, take a look at the statement head coach Corey Chamblin released (via Rod Pedersen):

On behalf of the Saskatchewan Roughriders Football Club I would like to inform you that we will be closing Day 2 and Day 3 practices to the public, effective tomorrow (Wednesday).

It has become apparent that some individuals attending practice sessions have created a competitive disadvantage by posting intricate personnel and play schemes on message boards.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders want to ensure fans that their support is appreciated. However in the team's best interest, Day 2 and Day 3 practices will remain closed until a solution is found that meets everyone's needs.

With all due respect to Chamblin, who had a very impressive head coaching debut this week with the posting that caused the problem, it's really hard to understand what all the fuss is about; that's not play diagrams at all, but rather a listing of injuries and personnel with very few surprises, and one that wouldn't look out of place as a standard beat writer's notebook post.) You could have a team's entire offensive playbook and still fail to shut them down if you don't correctly guess what combinations they're going to run at any given time, and there's evidence that even detailed espionage isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Consider the Terrence Jeffers-Harris situation from last season, where Winnipeg bizarrely cut their receiver three days before facing Hamilton in the East Final and the Tiger-Cats picked him up. If there ever was a case where inside information could have paid off, that would have been it; Jeffers-Harris obviously had a thorough knowledge of the Bombers' plays, but more importantly, knew their signals, their quarterback's read patterns and the underlying concepts behind their offence, all information that's difficult if not impossible to pick up from the stands. Yet, the Tiger-Cats were wiped out 19-3 by Winnipeg in that game. Sure, the main problem there was Hamilton's (lack of) offence, not their defence, but they didn't look to have the Bombers all figured out offensively either. If they couldn't do that with a guy who had been on the inside of the other team's huddle within the last week, it's very hard to imagine someone else pulling it off based off of message-board postings.

What's also being passed over in this saga is that opposing teams already have access to much more revealing information than whatever was posted on these message boards: game film. As mentioned above, there are a limited number of concepts available on offence; for example, most passing plays are just combinations of the standard football routes (and less than 10 of those are in regular use on CFL plays), so the trick is just figuring out what receivers are going to run which routes on a given play. Sure, you might be able to discern a little of that from an incredibly in-depth message board posting (although there's been no indication yet that these posts were that in-depth), but you have a much better chance of picking up not only route combinations but also the quarterback's drop and read progression, the blocking scheme and when the team's likely to run this play by looking at game film, and that's a resource that's available to every team. If I was a fan of a team playing the Riders, I'd much rather have my team's coaching staff spending their time breaking down game film of Saskatchewan's offence than searching Riders' message boards for tidbits from practice.

Calgary general manager/head coach John Hufnagel's approach looks like a much better one, and one that might actually have more significant value. There is one case where a few notes on plays run in practice would seem likely to aid an opponent, and that case is trick plays. We don't see them used all that much, and even when we do, they're often similarly executed (for example, the standard fake punt where the ball's snapped to the up-back, who takes off towards the sideline), but if the Stampeders do in fact have some more unique tricks up their sleeve, knowing that those plays exist could provide opponents with a small edge. (It's still a minimal one, as they don't know when they'll be run, but it's more significant than knowing opponents' standard plays.) Whether or not the Stampeders actually have some trick plays or just want opponents to think they do, they handled this situation well (and much better than their film counterparts would have): they recognized that the vast majority of their practices didn't require top secrecy, so they put the secret stuff into a small block and closed that portion. That makes significantly more sense from this corner than closing two practices a week to fans.

What's notable is that this is only the latest secrecy issue the CFL's faced, though, and it's far from the easiest to address. Keeping practices completely open might not hurt the Riders at all, but you could make a case that it could damage them very minimally (and that's if the posted notes are more detailed than what's come out). Not exiling media and fans while working on trick plays might hurt the Stampeders slightly. However, there are areas where the CFL maintains an impermeable veil of secrecy for no discernible reason at all, including teams' negotiation lists, players' salaries and contract information, teams' salary-cap status, game film and more.

If negotiation lists, salaries and contract terms were open to the public, it would be a tremendous boon for the league on the publicity front; fans would have more information about potential signings, trades and free-agent acquisitions, there could be central databases à la NHL site CapGeek, players would be able to see what comparable players were making and use that information in free agency negotiations, and there would be much more discussion during the CFL offseason, when the league can use all the hype it can get. This would also level the playing field for all teams; at the moment, most of this information comes out piecemeal through reporters, and the amount that's known varies from team to team. Film would help too; if the CFL made coaches' game film available to fans and media members on a single-game or subscription plan basis the way the NFL will this year, not only would they have found a tremendous new source of revenue, but they'd also increase the engagement of their fans.

Unlike open practices, where some can make a case that they may do (small and relatively insignificant) harm, these initiatives shouldn't hurt the league at all. In fact, they'd enhance it by boosting fan engagement, bringing in more revenue and putting all teams on an equal footing. If, to use the oft-repeated CFL slogan"This Is Our League", wouldn't it be better to have fans more tightly involved and talking about the league more thanks to extra information, particularly if it's awfully hard to find downsides to releasing that information? As the practice issue in Saskatchewan shows, though, the CFL's cult of secrecy is growing, not shrinking.

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