Before joining the CFL as its commissioner last year, Jeffrey Orridge spent a decade working in the American sports industry. As an executive with USA Basketball and Reebok Sports Marketing, among other positions, he witnessed the frenzied growth of professional sports in the U.S. during the 1990s and 2000s.
And now, quite simply, Orridge wants some of that for the CFL. A league that many Americans view as a quirky sideshow is looking for ways to push into a consciousness near you.
"We want to be a truly globally recognized league," Orridge said by phone recently. "And that doesn't have to mean playing the Canadian game outside of Canadian soil. What it does mean is marketing, promoting and exporting it to other parts of the world. The ultimate goal we have is to be globally recognized beyond our borders."
It's not difficult to understand why. Playing what is in essence the same game, the NFL has pushed its annual revenues past $13 billion. Recent estimates of CFL revenues among its nine teams, based on the numbers reported by its three publicly owned franchises, is approximately $200 million per year.
How Orridge will shepherd the CFL into the global market is less obvious. Part of the process will require navigating a parochial fan and media base that is wary of corporatizing of a league that traces its origins to the late 1800s -- well before the NFL's founding in 1920. Orridge, for instance, received criticism after using the 2015 Grey Cup platform to announce new branding and logo designs rather than focusing on internal issues facing the league -- most notably a season played without a drug policy.
"The time has come," Orridge announced at the time, "to update and transform the way we present ourselves."
A new drug policy has since been adopted, and Orridge wants to portray the CFL as a fast-paced and innovative league that opens its season during the dead time of the NFL calendar, features more than 50 percent American players and boasts a fan-friendly emphasis on the passing game that well exceeds the NFL's proportions.
Orridge speaks with a marketer's ease, suggesting that elevating interest is simply "about exposure and awareness." He wants the world to see "not only this unique brand of football, but also the athletes that Americans have known throughout college and have continued their careers in the CFL. A lot of people probably don't even know that some of their favorite college players are in the CFL."
ESPN is televising 20 games in the United States this season and making another 69 available on ESPN3. To be fair, of course, ESPN began broadcasting CFL games in 1980. That arrangement alone can't address Orridge's goals. The question is whether the content is appealing to a broader U.S. audience.
Tastes are particular, and fans outside of Canada haven't adopted in large quantities to a game that essentially is played in three downs, with 12 rather than 11 players per side, and on a field that is 10 yards longer and 12 yards wider than in the United States. Pre-snap motion can be jarring to those rooted in the "get set" mentality of American college football and the NFL.
All of which brings the natural question: Would Orridge consider tweaking the CFL's rules to bring it inline with what global expectations?
"We're not going to try to model after somebody else's game," Orridge said. "But we'll constantly work on improvements. Although many of the rules are different, the fundamental rules apply. The CFL and the NFL are very complementary. I know this: We serve up an exciting brand of football."
Indeed, through the weekend, more than 70 percent of CFL plays were passes. (The NFL was at 55 percent in 2015.) CFL games were averaging 51.5 combined points and 643 passing yards per game, the latter the highest in league history. To monetize that style, the CFL is tapping into the daily fantasy market via an agreement with DraftKings.
The most compelling part of the CFL's operation to me is its willingness to embrace technology and try new things. With a smaller market, and thus less risk of damage should a change backfire, the CFL is much more nimble than the NFL.
This year, for example, the CFL has put an official in its Toronto command center to watch live video and correct obvious mistakes in real time, even if they were not reviewable. The league has expanded its list of reviewable plays to include offensive and defensive pass interference. Players and coaches can study video on the sidelines during games; the NFL will still limit viewing to photographs in 2016.
"We're a big brand," Orridge said, "but we're nimble enough and have a bias toward action."
Is the CFL an American-ready sport, set to be consumed more broadly if only it is shared and promoted more strategically? I'm not sure anyone can say that yet. But the dominance of the NFL is too compelling to ignore. The CFL won't match its popularity, but it certainly has room to grow.