55 Yard Line - CFL

David Naylor has an interesting piece in today's Globe and Mail discussing CFL officials' plans to appear before the House of Commons finance committee Wednesday to ask for $12 million in funding for events around the 2012 Grey Cup. It's a relatively unprecedented move, as the Grey Cup is usually quite profitable on its own (Naylor's story suggests recent Grey Cups have made the host team $3-5 million), so you wouldn't think that it would need government backing. However, it doesn't look like this will be a simple bailout or subsidy. The plan appears to be centred around expanding the cultural events around the Grey Cup, and that could be a positive move.

Chris Rudge is the chief executive officer of the 2012 Grey Cup Festival, and he'll be familiar to many Canadians thanks to his past work as the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee. Here's what Rudge (shown at right with the Grey Cup at the June press conference announcing that the 2012 game would be in Toronto) had to say to Naylor about the rationale for asking for government funding:

"$12-million is a modest amount in terms of money made available for cultural events," said Chris Rudge, chief executive officer of the 2012 Grey Cup festival. "If we can get $12-million, we've got some pretty exciting events for all Canadians to participate in.

"It would allow us to expand the number of events held within the city, concerts and involve the entire cultural community, things that happen in Caribana or Gay Pride. And we want to see this done across the country as well, and see more people come to Toronto and rally the way we saw people rally around the [Olympic] Games in Vancouver."

Rudge makes an important point there. At first glance, the Grey Cup is a professional sports championship, and you don't see many leagues directly asking for government money to hold their championships (stadiums are another discussion entirely). However, if you go to the Grey Cup, you'll find it's much more than that. The game is the primary focus, but there's an amazing cultural atmosphere that springs up around it thanks to concerts, other festival events and just the sheer numbers of Canadian football fans from coast to coast who show up for the week. In many ways, the Grey Cup festival isn't all that different from arts events that have received federal funding in the past.

In fact, the connection to professional football may even enhance the case for federal funding rather than detracting from it. For one thing, that connection dramatically increases the numbers of people who travel a significant distance to attend the event. There are great cases to be made for federal funding of local arts festivals on many fronts, but one strike that is sometimes considered to be against them is that they often only attract people from nearby areas or tourists who happen to be in the area already. There are certainly exceptions to that which draw on a national scale, such as the famed Stratford Shakespeare Festival, but many arts events are locally-focused, and critics sometimes charge that they're only benefiting a small group of people from a certain geographic area. That isn't the case with the Grey Cup, as it draws people from all over Canada each November. Putting on extra cultural events around it will benefit many more people than just Toronto residents.

It's appropriate that Rudge is involved with this, as the 2010 Vancouver Olympics took a similar strategy; they received plenty of federal funding, and they put on concerts, built pavilions and held tons of other cultural events around the central sporting event. That worked out very well. I didn't have tickets for any of the Olympic sporting events, but I got to experience plenty of the cultural events, and I thought they and the party atmosphere they created were a huge part of why the Olympics generally turned out so well overall. People from across the country and around the world showed up and experienced the cultural side of the Games, and few were left disappointed. If the 2012 Grey Cup festival is done well, it could create a similarly positive experience.

The financial side isn't as daunting as it may seem, either. $12 million may sound like a lot of money, but it isn't in terms of the federal budget and the kinds of expenditures made on other events. For example, Naylor's piece mentions that the federal government has already announced over $400 million in contributions to the 2015 Pan-Am Games in Toronto. Some of that money will go towards infrastructure spending that will benefit people and groups long after those games are over, including perhaps a new Hamilton stadium the Tiger-Cats could play in, but that's still a lot of money to spend on an event that isn't all that significant from a sports perspective. By contrast, the CFL's request for a much smaller sum to improve the atmosphere around a much higher-profile event seems pretty reasonable.

Another reason this could work is the uniqueness of the 2012 event, which will be the 100th Grey Cup. Considering the history of the trophy, it's appropriate that this one will be held in Toronto, as the first Grey Cup was held there in 1909, and featured the University of Toronto Varsity Blues winning their first of three straight championships. They beat the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club in 1909, then followed that up with victories over the Hamilton Tigers (who merged with the Hamilton Wildcats in 1950 to form the Hamilton Tiger-Cats) and the Toronto Argonauts. Much like the Stanley Cup, the Grey Cup had a wide variety of teams competing for it in the early days; its champions include university squads like the Varsity Blues (who won their last Grey Cup in 1920 and picked up 25 Yates Cup and two Vanier Cup victories since then, but haven't had a winning record since 1995, even if they did knock off No.2 Ottawa last weekend) and the Queen's Golden Gaels (who won three straight Grey Cups from 1922 to 1924), curiously-named groups like the Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers and small-town teams like the Sarnia Imperials.

The trophy's wartime history is also interesting, and it provides the reason why 2012 will be the 100th Grey Cup game; it wasn't awarded from 1916-1919 thanks to the First World War and the subsequent influenza pandemic, but it was won by various Canadian military football teams during the Second World War, including the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes and a Montreal team representing HMCS Donnacona. After the war, the only teams to compete for it are ones CFL fans would recognize, even if the league itself didn't officially form until 1958. The Grey Cup's come a long way since the early days, but its roots are still important. With its return to its beginnings in Toronto, the 100th Grey Cup could be a spectacular event that pays homage to both where Canadian football has been and where it's going.

There are still questions that need to be asked around this plan, such as if all the requested money will be going to put on festival events, if those will be new and expanded events that wouldn't occur otherwise or if they're ones that could happen anyway with league and sponsorship funding, and if the events will be free to the public, run on a cost-recovery model or run on a for-profit model. I'm not particularly interested in seeing the government fund Grey Cup activities that would have happened anyway just so the Argonauts and their owner can make more money, even if he does happen to be a senator. I also don't think it would necessarily be a great move for the government to fund new events that the Argonauts can make a big profit off. However, if the proposed funding is to expand the festival well beyond what it would normally be (as Rudge's comments would seem to indicate), and if the new events are going to be accessible to a wide range of Canadians, you could make a good case for federal funding here. The 2012 Grey Cup has the potential to be an incredible event for Canadians from coast-to-coast, not just those who live in Toronto, and if the festival organizers and federal government representatives recognize that, we could see something special happen.

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