BARNES: Canadian Football League at centre of international tournament action

BARNES: Canadian Football League at centre of international tournament action

CALGARY — When orange flags fly over Canadian Football League fields, it usually heralds good news for one team and bad for another.

When the flags of other football-playing nations fly over fields in Edmonton in 2024, and perhaps Regina or Laval in 2022, it should be seen as a win-win for the game and the CFL’s continuing efforts to be the sport’s major global player.

On Friday, Football Canada announced Edmonton will host the 2024 world U20 championship, a six- or eight-team junior tournament to be staged in July.

Football Canada is also in discussions with both the CFL and USports to potentially partner on a Four Nations Cup-style tournament in 2022, featuring junior teams from Canada, Mexico, Japan and the United States. Football Canada has reached out to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who expressed support for the idea but are “not actively pursuing it” at this time, according to a Riders’ spokesperson. Word is the Laval Rouge et Or are also interested in playing a role.

A world university championship tournament could also happen in Canada in June of 2024, involving individual school teams rather than all-star squads. USports is gauging interest and considering a hosting bid.

An international home-and-home series pitting university players in Mexico and Canada against one another in an all-star format is still on the table and could begin as early as 2020.

Twenty-five Canadian players were recently drafted by teams in Mexico’s Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional. CFL teams will have up to five global players in 2020, two on the active roster and as many as three on the practice roster.

And Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said a CFL game played outside the country is baked into the league’s new rights deal with TSN.

It’s a veritable whirlwind of international action and the CFL is at the epicentre, which is a welcome change according to Richard MacLean, who is both director of football for USports and president of the International Federation of American Football, the world governing body.

“It’s a lot different than a few years ago when there was little interest from the CFL in working with Football Canada to do anything international,” said MacLean, who is also a former Football Canada president. “It was like, ‘we’re not interested in this. It’s international football, it’s American football and we’re not interested.’ I was trying to tell the leadership of the CFL at the time that this is a bigger picture.

“Now, with Randy as commissioner, they realize there is a huge market out there, a growing market and an emerging market for football. It’s an amazing opportunity for the football community in Canada to show the rest of the world who we are, what we do, and that we have an amazing game, and people around the world are buying into that.”

Ambrosie’s global initiative, dubbed CFL 2.0, has generated momentum and interest with football federations all over the globe, but has generated little revenue. Then again, it hasn’t cost the league much, either.

The CFL conducted its first international player combine and draft in Mexico City last January, and signed working agreements with football entities in 10 more nations. The world has opened its eyes and arms to the CFL.

The CFL’s head of football operations Greg Dick said Friday there will be a player combine in Stockholm, Sweden and quite likely one in Denmark in early 2020, adding to the eight events already scheduled for Mexico City, Tokyo, Osaka, Helsinki, Frankfurt, Florence, Paris and Bristol, England. Dick said Danish officials want to include a coaching clinic in their event, and the CFL is on board.

“Part of the international strategy to develop football is to grow football in all these nations, so coaching clinics and officials exchanges are part of our plan, not only the player exchange,” he said.

But the player exchange piece is an interesting and growing one. Dick said Japan’s X-League wants to open up at least one roster spot on each team for a Canadian player, not unlike what the Mexican league will be doing in the 2020 season. It’s not hard to see that idea spread to Europe, too.

“So when Randy talks about a partnership and collaboration, it is truly that,” said Dick. “Randy will set up the relationship and the next step is for me and my team to set up the football relationship. Because we’ve got to get the (international) football players in our league and develop that football relationship that will allow us to have international broadcast deals and international sponsorship and international fan engagement, all those good things.”

There are opportunities to grow the game and revenues at home too, and they will not be overlooked. Dick said the CFL hasn’t yet decided whether to contribute financially to international events being pursued by Football Canada and USports, but it’s clear the CFL is in it for the greater good of the game.

“The whole thing is, we want to help everyone be aligned,” said Dick, “so that we can drive participation and grow the game.”

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