55 Yard Line - CFL

The first edition of Touchdown Atlantic is in the books, with the Edmonton Eskimos recording a 24-6 win over the Toronto Argonauts Sunday afternoon in Moncton in the first CFL regular-season game to be played in a non-franchise city. The on-field product wasn't all that compelling, as both sides turned in dismal offensive performances and the Eskimos' victory came on the strength of six interceptions. However, this particular football game was much more meaningful than the average regular-season game, and yet only a small part of the overall picture of this week's events.

As a whole, the Touchdown Atlantic festivities seem to have been remarkably well-received. The parties and musical events proved popular, the high-school and university games attracted plenty of interest, and the CIS game even furnished a surprising upset, with Mount Allison knocking off Saint Mary's 23-21. Tickets for today's main event sold out within 32 hours of the when they went on sale last March, and enthusiasm lasted throughout the game despite the poor quality of play and lopsided final result. That's already led to plenty of discussion of a potential return to Moncton for a similar regular-season game next year, perhaps between Hamilton and Calgary.

The real question surrounding the Touchdown Atlantic festivities is if this can eventually lead to the establishment of a new CFL franchise in Atlantic Canada, though. You can bet that's what the fans bearing the Atlantic Schooners' banner in the picture above are hoping for, and after the tremendous success of this week's events, there probably would be many willing to jump on that bandwagon. As I wrote last week, it's important not to move towards expansion too quickly, though, which is why suggestions of 12- or 13-team leagues are frankly out of the question for the moment.

The CFL is in a relatively strong position at the moment, drawing great television ratings and decent attendance while having stable ownership groups and solid corporate sponsorship deals in place. However, it's only become that way because of a detail-oriented focus that's sought to stabilize and improve the existing franchises before adding new ones. Ottawa is officially set to join the league in 2013, and the slow-but-steady process taken in that city is the right one to take in this case as well.

Dave Naylor explored the Maritime passion for the CFL, the case for an Atlantic team and the hurdles that would have to be cleared in a video segment shown on TSN's pre-game show Sunday, and there's some good stuff in there. Naylor also talked to Moncton mayor George Leblanc, federal defence minister and Nova Scotia MP Peter McKay, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon and Argonauts president Bob Nicholson for a Globe and Mail piece on the subject, and he got some interesting comments. McKay's comments in particular might best showcase the dichotomy at work here between potential profits and possible pitfalls, and they also illustrate just what hurdles have to be cleared before the CFL can go ahead with an Atlantic franchise:

"‘It's been a spectacular, region-wide event,' said Defence Minister Peter McKay, an MP from central Nova Scotia and a big supporter of the CFL's Atlantic Canadian initiative. ‘It's here in Moncton, but there's people from across Atlantic Canada and across the country. It has the feel of a mini-Grey Cup or an all-star game.'

The challenge for the league now is to determine what it all means. A once-a-year football game in a market with a metro population of 125,000 is a far cry from developing the kinds of relationships necessary to support a team year in and year out.

But it's hard to ignore the kind of enthusiasm that allowed the game to sell out in less than two days.

‘It means there's a realistic desire to elevate football in Atlantic Canada,' McKay said. ‘You're seeing that in college and minor football here. There's a strong fan base and there's a real interest in pursuing the process of having an Atlantic-Canadian entry in the CFL. In order for that to happen, there has to be a business case and private-sector involvement.'"

From this vantage point, it looks like McKay (and most of the others who have spoken on the issue) understand just what's at stake here. On the one hand, the CFL absolutely cannot afford to ignore the Maritime market, as Atlantic Canada is really the only area of the country with a significant population that doesn't have a team to call its own. This is what elevates it over areas like Quebec City or Saskatoon; even if there's a strong base of three-down football fans in those areas, a new team would be drawing much of its support from those who already follow the league through teams like the Alouettes or Roughriders. By contrast, the Maritime provinces are a largely untapped market for the CFL. It's about much more than just the public-relations coup of a league that truly goes from sea to shining sea; it's about reaching a base of fans who enjoy the sport but don't have a local team to support. This year's Touchdown Atlantic festivities certainly showed that those fans are around, and they exist in significant numbers.

That alone doesn't mean it should be full speed ahead on the expansion front, though. Yes, the CFL got a tremendous response to a single week-long event that was the first of its kind. That doesn't necessarily mean that a full schedule of regular-season games would receive as much support. There are over 1.2 million people within a few hours' drive of Moncton and even more if you include the far-flung Maritime areas people travelled from for this game, but that doesn't mean everyone will make a significant road trip week in and week out.

Filling the basic seats might just be the easiest part of expansion, though, and although the response to this week's event may not be conclusive on that front, it's certainly suggestive that it is possible. The fronts that may be more difficult are ownership, corporate support and a stadium. Finding the right person to own a CFL franchise isn't an easy task, as it takes both a substantial amount of money and a substantial community connection. Moreover, ownership mistakes can have dire consequences and lead to franchise failures like what happened in Ottawa. On the corporate front, many of the league's advertising deals are national, but attracting local business sponsorship is still vital to the health of many CFL franchises. That might be difficult in Moncton, a city with a metropolitan population of only 125,000 and not a lot of corporate headquarters.

The stadium issue might just be the biggest challenge, as Moncton Stadium isn't designed for events of the size of a CFL game. Temporary expansion to around 20,000 seats is fine for an annual game like this, but a CFL franchise based in Moncton would likely require a larger venue. Expanding the stadium would be expensive though, as would building a new one, and government funding for professional sports facilities isn't the easiest political sell at the moment.

All that adds up to suggest that the proposed tack of playing one regular-season game in Moncton for the next few years before deciding on expansion is wise. With further games and more research, the league should be able to find out just how extensive the potential fan base and corporate backing could be for an Atlantic team. If these events continue to work this well every year, it would seem likely that a potential owner might step out of the woodwork, and that could lead to stadium resolution as well. However, if the demand decreases and Touchdown Atlantic II or III run into problems, the league can cut its losses with much less damage than if they announced a Maritime team today. The initial Touchdown Atlantic event certainly provided plenty of hope that a Maritime franchise may be possible someday, but someday is still a long way off and the road goes ever on.

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