The Canadian Football League is considering a number of rule changes ahead of the 2022 season, including the possibility of moving to a four-down model, like the NFL uses.
CFL executives aren’t happy with the downward trend in scoring, prompting a serious discussion about the highly controversial decision to potentially add an extra down in an attempt to reverse that trend. The CFL saw scoring drop from 49.5 points per game in 2019 to 43.1 points per game in 2021, a decrease of 12.9%. Obviously, the pandemic contributed to some of this year’s lack of scoring, as teams didn’t get a proper preseason and were missing more players than usual throughout the season due to COVID protocols.
This downward trend in scoring has been apparent for over a decade. In 2010, the Calgary Stampeders led the league, averaging 34.7 points per game. This past year, the Montreal Alouettes led the CFL with a mark of just 22.4 points per game. Yikes.
So why does it matter if scoring is down? Well, there’s a corresponding trend in TV ratings. This year’s Grey Cup had an average audience of 3.1 million viewers in Canada, making it the lowest-rated Grey Cup on record, and the game only drew 129,000 viewers on ESPN2 in the United States.
Even more troubling is the demographics of the audience watching CFL football. A 2018 study conducted by Angus Reid said that the age group most likely to prefer the CFL to the NFL is “men over the age of 55.” The study also revealed that only a third of these CFL viewers believe the league is getting more exciting. Appealing to a younger generation moving forward will be the key to the CFL’s survival and success.
Three-down football has been played in Canada since 1903. So, as you can imagine, CFL purists are heavily against the possibility of a major change to the rules of the game. However, adding an extra down would surely improve offense across the league, especially when combined with the larger field used for CFL play. (The NFL field is 100 by 53-1/3 yards with a midfield line at 50 yards. A CFL field is 110 by 65 yards with the midfield line at 55 yards.) In 2020, NFL games averaged a comparatively whopping 49.6 points per game, a number CFL executives would love to replicate.
Reactions to four-down football within CFL
Here are some reactions about a potential move to a four-down system from some prominent people in the CFL realm:
“I would say no. … You’re talking about this wide-open field, four downs and being able to run the ball, you can run the ball now two or three times because you have four downs,” Hall of Fame receiver and TV analyst Milt Stegall said on TSN 1260. “That takes away from the excitement of the game and takes away from how special teams plays a big part in this game.”
‘I would say no’: CFL legend Milt Stegall @MiltStegallTSN staunchly against four-down CFL footballhttps://t.co/cN8qnczuGH#Alouettes #AlsMTL #Redblacks #RNation #Argos #Ticats #Bombers #Riders #Elks #CalStampeders #BCLions #CFL pic.twitter.com/DODNCl7jl4
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) December 18, 2021
“I definitely noticed it (lack of scoring). I don’t think it’s drastic. I think our games have actually have been quite good,” Calgary Stampeders head coach and former CFL quarterback Dave Dickenson told 3DownNation. “The things I’m chalking it up to right now is, I do think there’s been a lot of zone coverage where teams have decided to force the other team to basically be patient. And better punters — these are the best punters I’ve ever seen in the CFL. It’s not like we have short fields.”
What do Canadian sportsbooks think?
The general consensus from legal, provincially run sportsbooks in Canada is that they’d welcome the possibility of a rule change, especially if it adds to the excitement level for sports bettors. They’ll have plenty of time to develop a new over/under total handicapping strategy, if such a change is implemented.
“While the CFL’s three-down model is one of the unique features that adds to the game’s identity among its fans, moving to four downs could also be a fresh update to consider for the league in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience,” Greg Weston of the Atlantic Lottery Corporation told US Bets in an email. “Any such rule changes would not change our approach to continuously monitor, react, and adapt with evolving game conditions and trends, as we consider how to manage our lines.”
“It’s something we’ll be monitoring closely,” Tony Bitonti, director of external communications for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, told US Bets. “The league expects that the proposal (among many that are under consideration) would lead to an overall increase in scoring, particularly when coupled with the other differences that already exist between the CFL and NFL. We are hearing it’s something that CFL purists strongly oppose, so the league will have to weigh any significant rule changes against the possibility of alienating their existing fan base.”
Bombers bettors got a scare, but ultimately came out on top in this year's Grey Cup. https://t.co/hUvRfDTE2C
— gregwarrenBC (@GregwarrenBC) December 13, 2021
Other rule differences between CFL, NFL
For those unfamiliar with the CFL, here are just a few of the other major differences between Canada’s league and the NFL:
- In addition to the different sizes of the playing field, the end zones are different lengths, too. CFL end zones are 20 yards deep, while the NFL’s are only 10 yards deep.
- Kicking uprights are located at the front of the end zone in CFL, but are located at the back of the end zone in the NFL.
- The rouge. In the CFL, a single point is awarded when the ball is kicked into the end zone by any legal means and the receiving team does not return the ball out of the end zone. A rouge is not awarded through a successful or failed conversion or a successful field goal.
- Each CFL team fields 12 players a side, while the NFL fields 11 per team.
- CFL teams can each use two timeouts per game and only one in the last three minutes of the game. NFL teams get three timeouts each per half.
Photo by Bruce Fedyck/USA TODAY Sports