55 Yard Line

NFL support for CIS may help CFL, which has its own connections to the university game

Western fans recreated the Lambeau Leap during the NFL on Campus tour last year.NFL Canada announced Tuesday that they'll be visiting nine CIS schools this year with the NFL on Campus program, which we also saw in 2012. The program looks to get university students excited about both NFL and CIS football, offering various interactive experiences (Madden tournaments, prizes, flag football tournaments and more) during the week leading up to a big CIS home game, and it also includes a $4,000 donation to the football program at each participating school. It's received quite positive comments from CIS personnel, as you can tell from the release (which includes a full schedule of tour stops):

"The NFL’s partnership with Western this past year was second to none," said Jason Young, Marketing Manager, Western University. "Having the NFL on Campus as part of Homecoming really helped engage thousands of our undergraduate students throughout the entire week. ... "Come game day over 12,000 students, alumni and families were lined up to enjoy the NFL interactive [program] in-stadium," added Young. "We are extremely excited to host the NFL on-campus experience once again as we celebrate our 100th anniversary of Mustang athletics at Homecoming September 28. Thanks to the NFL on Campus crew, we are anticipating another sold-out crowd. ...

"The NFL on Campus experience provides the community and students a fan-friendly atmosphere that raises the level of excitement of our home football game," said Dave Easter, Manager of Marketing & Communications, Department of Athletics, University of Guelph. "The generous support for our intramural football program during the NFL’s time on campus is also a real enhancement. We are excited to have the NFL return to our campus Oct 4 for our first night game in over 20 years."

At first glance, something like this might bring up thoughts that CIS is loosening ties with the CFL and moving to increase its connection to the NFL. It would be far from the only move on that front: after all, several big-name players seemingly dodged the CFL last year to return to CIS and hope for an NFL shot, the Grey Cup and Vanier Cup have been separated for the foreseeable future, the CFL and CIS have signed long-term TV contracts with competitors (TSN and Sportsnet respectively, adding yet another front to the endless Bell-Rogers war) and the state of the CFL/CIS relationship was noteworthy enough that it became a discussion topic during CFL commissioner Mark Cohon's state of the league address last November. However, when all the appropriate context is factored in, the picture changes quite substantially, and the NFL's increased outreach to Canadian schools may actually wind up benefiting the CFL—which isn't that odd either, as those leagues are getting along quite well at the moment.

First, it's well worth noting that stronger CIS football tends to benefit the CFL. This year's CFL draft, expanded to seven rounds and 60 selections, saw 44 CIS players taken. That's the highest raw number of CIS players chosen since 1987 and the highest percentage chosen since 2009. Moreover, the depth of Canadian talent is rising significantly, part of why this draft was expanded. A lot of that is thanks to substantial improvements in coaching and facilities at the CIS level, and programs like this NFL Canada initiative should only enhance that. For one thing, there's the direct donation to each school's football program, but beyond that, there's the promotion for the CIS game. If this can help get more students (and non-students) out to games, that's crucial: more attendance generally means more revenue (many CIS schools have mandatory athletic fees where students pay regardless of if they attend or not, but solid student attendance can boost concession sales, the program's profile and more), and it also makes football a larger priority for the athletic department and the school. That leads to even further investments in football, and that in turn should lead to better and more-polished players coming out of the CIS ranks.

Where are those players going to go? By and large, the CFL. Yes, there are a few CIS athletes who can go directly to the NFL and stick around for a while, like Vaughn Martin (drafted by San Diego, now with Miami), Cory Greenwood (undrafted, signed by Kansas City, now with Detroit) and Stefan Charles (undrafted, signed by Tennessee). There are several more who can get NFL looks, but aren't able to stay in that league for long (Matt O'Donnell, Shawn Gore, Jordan Sisco, Kirby Fabien, Ben D'Aguilar and others: in fact, from this list of six CIS players who signed NFL deals in 2010, Greenwood is the only one not currently in the CFL).

Beyond that, there are lots of very talented players at the CIS level who never get much of an NFL look. It's notable that Fabien, Carson Rockhill and Frederic Plesius all turned down the CFL for a CIS return and perhaps an NFL shot last year, but they're all in the CFL now. Thus, while anything that helps boost the quality of CIS football may boost its value to the NFL (and that value is rising: even some American players like Akiem Hicks, who was chosen in the 2012 NFL draft, are starting to see CIS as a legitimate pathway to the NFL), it's also going to boost the talent pool the CFL draws upon—and that may be even more significant, considering that the CFL pulls in tons of CIS players every year and the NFL only gets a few and only keeps a few of those.

Furthermore, it's not like CIS is choosing to work with the NFL and only the NFL. In fact, they work with the CFL on many issues. A non-exhaustive list from CFL director of communications Jamie Dykstra of things the CFL does with CIS includes such elements as the CFL sponsoring the CIS East-West Bowl all-star game, funding the national and regional prospect combines (estimated to include 90 per cent CIS players), funding 80 drug tests of CIS football players per year, featuring CIS players on the league website's prospects section, developing CIS quarterbacks through training camp invitations, working together on a concussion program and holding high-level meetings with university counterparts (both in the coaching ranks and in the digital/communications ranks).

That's a pretty substantial list, and that's before you get into team-specific agreements: CFL and CIS teams in Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal and Regina regularly share stadium facilities, and this season's also seen sharing arrangements in Guelph (season-long, with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats) and Toronto (a one-off exhibition game for the Argonauts). There are plenty of cross-promotional ticket deals and such, too. Thus, it's not like there isn't a substantial CFL-CIS relationship already, and even though there has been some deterioration on that front thanks to events like players turning down the CFL, the separation of the Grey and Vanier Cups and the separate, somewhat competing TV deals, Cohon's comments last November that the CFL-CIS relationship is "very strong" and that the league will be looking to build it further would seem to indicate it's not going anywhere.

Moreover, there's no reason the CFL and the NFL can't both work with CIS. In fact, there's no reason the CFL and the NFL can't work together themselves, and we're seeing some progress on that front. There are still questions to iron out about just to what extent the CFL should develop players for the NFL, but the pathway back and forth between the leagues is working pretty well at the moment. The Canada-adjacent NFL franchises aren't getting in the CFL's way lately, either: the extension of the Bills' series of games in Toronto might be one of the best ways to keep the NFL from settling there permanently (which is a great boon for the CFL and the Argos), and the Seahawks' efforts to extend their brand north of the border have often been in conjunction with the B.C. Lions, leading to scenes like Lions' GM Wally Buono raising a Seahawks flag at an event this month.

The NFL, CFL and CIS all have plenty of fans (some of whom are fans of all three levels), and most importantly, they all benefit from improvements in the quality of Canadian football talent and in the quality of CIS play. Those are good common goals, and that's why events like this NFL on Campus tour that specifically benefit the NFL and CIS may also help the CFL. Of course, just how useful these tours are is up for debate, as they've drawn mixed reviews in the past. Still, the idea of promoting both NFL and CIS football in Canada isn't necessarily a bad one, and it's one that may even help out the CFL.

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