Here we are again. Another CFL season when one division is more dominant than another in the CFL. The past few years have shined the light on a problem with the CFL playoff structure: When one division (the West, invariably) is much stronger than its counterpart, the playoffs become unbalanced, removing the incentive to finish higher in your own division (unless you can finish first, of course).
Fans of Western Division teams are talking about how they’d prefer to be fourth in order to “cross over” to the East as the no. 3 on that side rather than finishing third in the West and thus face two stronger teams on the road in their own division.
I did a study last year showing that while the right teams were making the playoffs, it was clear that there was an issue with the seeding. Between 1996 and 2015, 12 of the 20 teams that had the second-best record in the league did not get a bye to the finals, while teams with inferior records did. This wasn’t even including last season, which was more of the same.
In CFL seasons with eight teams, a slight scheduling bias resulted in teams playing divisional opponents more frequently than non-divisional teams: This was done by playing four games against one division opponent, three against the other two, and two against each team in the other division. When Ottawa joined the league again in 2014, however, that had to change. Now, irrespective of division, each CFL team plays 10 games against West teams and eight against the East. If you’re a West Division team, you play three games against two divisional opponents, two games against your other two divisional opponents, and two against the four teams in the East. An East team faces two divisional opponents three times, one divisional opponent twice, and each of the five West opponents twice.
This has had some consequences lately: Two of the past three seasons have produced crossover teams from the West to the East, and last season saw the first sub-.500 division champion in CFL history!
The fact that we have a problem is clear. The arguments against making any dramatic changes mostly center on tradition and history. I’m a lover of both, but when I look more closely, I’m struck by how the competition surrounding the Grey Cup has evolved over time.
I’m not going to rehash all of Canadian football history, but the short version is that the initial Cup contenders were mostly amateur and, for the first seven years until competition paused for World War I, based solely in the East, with the final contenders all coming from the greater Toronto area. The original Edmonton Eskimos were the first western team to challenge for the Cup, but western teams weren’t given an automatic berth to the Grey Cup final until the 1950s, having to win a challenge game against the amateur Ontario Rugby Football Union champion; it wouldn’t be until 1955 that the precursors to the West and East divisions were the only teams left challenging for the Grey Cup, leading to the creation of the CFL itself in 1958.
The divisions would exist for another 23 years before full interdivisional play came into being in 1981, which magnified the differences between the two divisions in the early 80s. A precursor to the crossover was put in place in 1986, but was eliminated with the sudden changes in ’87 surrounding the Montreal Alouettes folding on the eve of the season and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers moving to the East to replace them.
The eight-team format was the status quo until the mid-90s, which took the league from slow long-term change to five different formats in five seasons from 1993 to ’97. From 1998 to 2001, the eight-team format returned and, with the exception of the 2002-2005 Ottawa Renegades era, it stayed that way until 2014, when the Ottawa RedBlacks were born. We can talk about tradition and history all we want, but since the early days of the Grey Cup (and even since the establishment of the CFL), there has always been change. Switching to a one-division format would be the next logical evolution in an ever-changing CFL playoff structure.
Oh, by the way, that potential 10th team that people are always asking about? If that franchise does come into being at some point, what then? Do we have everyone play two games against all opponents, meaning that we have the teams in both divisions playing only eight games in division and ten games out of division? A solid 10th CFL team would almost force the league to go to one division.
It’s now clear to me: The next step in the league’s evolution involves eliminating the East and West divisions and having all teams play a simpler one-division structure. It’s only a matter of time, especially if a tenth team ever evolves from a wish to a reality.
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