Rugby football began to be played in Canada in the 1860s, and many of the first Canadian football teams played under the auspices of the Canadian Rugby Football Union (CRFU), founded in 1884. The CRFU was reorganized as the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) in 1891, and served as an umbrella organization for several provincial and regional unions. The Grey Cup was donated by Governor General Earl Grey in 1909 to the team winning the Senior Amateur Football Championship of Canada. By that time, the sport as played in Canada had diverged markedly from its rugby origins, and started to become more similar to the American game. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the two senior leagues of the CRU, the eastern Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU or Big Four) and Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) gradually evolved from amateur to professional leagues, and amateur teams such as those in the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) were no longer competitive in their Cup challenges. The ORFU withdrew from Grey Cup competition after the 1954 season, heralding the start of the modern era of professional Canadian football, in which the Grey Cup has been exclusively contested by professional teams (Since 1965, Canada’s top amateur teams, competing inCanadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), have competed for the Vanier Cup).
In 1956, the IRFU and WIFU formed a new umbrella organization, the Canadian Football Council (CFC). In 1958, the CFC left the CRU and became the Canadian Football League. As part of an agreement between the CRU and CFL, the CFL took possession of the Grey Cup, even though amateurs hadn’t competed for it since 1954. The CRU remained the governing body for amateur play in Canada, eventually adopting the name Football Canada. Initially, the two unions remained autonomous, and there was no intersectional play between eastern (IRFU) and western (WIFU) teams except at the Grey Cup final. This situation was roughly analogous to how the American baseball leagues operated for years. The IRFU was renamed the Eastern Football Conference in 1960, while the WIFU was renamed the Western Football Conference in 1961. Also in 1961, limited intersectional play was introduced. It was not until 1981 that the two conferences agreed to a full merger, becoming the East and West Divisions of the CFL. With the merger came a full interlocking schedule of 16 games per season.
The separate histories of the IRFU and the WIFU accounted for the fact that two teams had basically the same name: the IRFU’s Ottawa Rough Riders were often called the “Eastern Riders”, while the WIFU’s Saskatchewan Roughriders were called the “Western Riders” or “Green Riders”. Other team names had traditional origins. With rowing a national craze in the late 19th century, the Argonaut Rowing Club of Toronto formed a rugby team for its members’ off-season participation. The football team name Toronto Argonauts still remains even though it and the rowing club have long since gone their separate ways. After World War II, the two teams inHamilton—the Tigers and the Flying Wildcats—merged both their organizations into the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
In 1986 the Concordes were renamed the Alouettes to attract more fan support, but the team folded the next year. The demise of the Alouettes forced the League to move its easternmost Western team, Winnipeg, into the East Division.
United States expansion
Despite all American teams having the advantage of not being bound to the CFL’s minimum Canadian player quotas, only the Stallions proved to be an on-field and off-field success. The establishment of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, worsening financial problems among the league’s core Canadian teams, and the inconsistent performance of the American teams prompted the CFL to abandon its American experiment and retrench its Canadian operations. The Stallions organization was used as the basis for a revival of the Montreal Alouettes.
The CFL returned to an all-Canadian format in 1996 with nine teams; however, the Ottawa Rough Riders, in existence since 1876, folded after the 1996 season. Toronto and recently revived Montreal also were struggling; Montreal’s woes were solved by moving to Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, a much smaller venue than the cavernous Olympic Stadium.
In 1997, the NFL provided a $3-million USD interest-free loan to the financially struggling CFL. In return, the NFL was granted access to CFL players entering a defined two-month window in the option year of their contract. This was later written into the CFL’s collective bargaining agreement with its players. The CFL’s finances have since stabilized and they eventually repaid the loan. The CFL–NFL agreement expired in 2006. Both leagues have been attempting to reach a new agreement, but the CFL broke off negotiations in November 2007 after Canadian telecommunications firm Rogers Communications paid $78 million to host seven Bills games in Toronto over five seasons.
In 2005, the league set an all-time attendance record with a total attendance of more than 2.3 million. With the absence of Ottawa from 2006 onwards, league attendance has hovered around the 2 million mark. It stood at 2,029,875 in 2012 for a single game average of 28,193. The 2007 season was a recent high point with average game attendance of 29,167, the best since 1983. The 2012 season was another significant milestone for the league, marking the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup award. With Toronto defeating Calgary, the league was rewarded with the highest ever television ratings for a championship game in English Canada.
Mark Cohon Era (’07-’15)
During the 2000s the CFL had the third highest per-game attendance of any North American sports league and the seventh highest per-game attendance of any sports league worldwide. A 2006 survey conducted at the University of Lethbridge confirmed that the CFL is the second most popular sports league in Canada, with the following of 19% of the total adult Canadian population compared to 30% for theNHL. The NFL had 11% following, with a total of 26% following at least one of the pro football leagues. This could be interpreted to mean that approximately 80% of Canadian football fans follow the CFL and about 55% follow the NFL.
The Montreal Alouettes accomplished this first, adding 5,000 seats to Percival Molson Memorial Stadium in time for the 2010 CFL season. The Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders also renovated their respective stadiums and facilities for the 2010 season. In 2011, the BC Lions played under a new, retractable roof in BC Place after spending one and a half seasons at Empire Field. In 2013, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers moved to an entirely new stadium at the University of Manitoba.
In 2014 the Ottawa RedBlacks kicked off their inaugural season (having been awarded a franchise in 2008), becoming the third Ottawa franchise in CFL history. The new Ottawa franchise returned the league to 9 team structure, with 5 teams in West Division and 4 in the East. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers moved back to the West Division. The 2014 expansion Ottawa RedBlacks played a newly renovated Frank Clair Stadium, now branded as TD Place Stadium.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats began using their new stadium, Tim Hortons Field, after spending the first half of the season at Guelph University’s football field following the demolition of the iconic Ivor Wynne Stadium.
Jeffrey Orridge Era (’15 to present)
The Toronto Argonauts entered a period of transition off the field, with new ownership and a new stadium. The Argonauts were sold by politician/businessman David Braley to Bell Media and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum. At the start of the 2016 season the Argos moved to BMO Field after more than 20 seasons at the Rogers Centre (formerly called the SkyDome from 1989–2005).
On May 22, 2015, Michael Sam signed a two-year contract with Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. The signing made him the first openly gay player in the league’s history. Sam left the team the day before the first preseason game, citing personal reasons. As reported by Fox Sports, Sam returned to Montreal to continue his professional football career but again left on August 14, permanently, again citing personal reasons.
Immediately following the 2015 season Jeffrey Orridge announced a re-branding for the CFL, including a new logo, motto, jerseys and website. After not having a drug enforcement policy in effect for the 2015 season the league and the CFLPA agreed to a new drug policy.
Construction on New Mosaic Stadium for the Saskatchewan Roughriders was completed in October 2016 and the first games were played there in 2017.