Sports  The CFL’s Canadian Problem

Andy Fantuz begins to fill the noticeable void of Canadian talent in the league

Andy Fantuz, one of the biggest Canadian-born stars in the Canadian Football League (CFL), made the move from the Saskatchewan Roughriders to the Hamilton Ti-Cats on February 17. The receiver is from Chatam-Kent, Ontario and is making his return to the province where he played –when growing up and, then, while he was at University of Western Ontario (UWO).

Fantuz was given the CFL’s “Outstanding Canadian of the Year Award” for 2010, and his stellar play earned him a contract with the NFL’s Chicago Bears in that off-season. Less than a year later, he returned to Saskatchewan, failing to make a single appearance for the Bears. Now that he is back in Canada, he is one of the CFL’s most recognizable names.

The CFL is littered with American athletes who are well known to sports fans across Canada: Anthony Calvillo, Arland Bruce, Jamel Richardson, Henry Burris, and more. Over Fantuz’s six seasons in the CFL, he has managed to join this talented group of players; however, he has the distinction of being the list’s only Canadian. This singularity highlights one of the league’s most prominent criticisms: the lack of star Canadian players.

In Canada, the CFL has to compete with the NFL – a league with such a lucrative TV deal that its’ exposure in Canada far outweighs that of the CFL. In order to compete with the NFL, the CFL needs to offer something different and distinctly Canadian with which people can connect – having a different set of rules than the NFL does not create enough interest. This is why a player like Andy Fantuz is so important to the future of the league.

Fantuz’s story started the same way as thousands of other Canadian football players’ do. He played high school and university football at Canadian schools. He began to show his exceptionalism, though, while at UWO, winning the Hec Crighton Award in 2005 as the best university football player in Canada.

Despite the prestige of the Hec Crighton award, the CFL isn’t littered with past recipients. The simple reason is that – in order to win the award – a player must be playing in a noticeable position; it usually goes to either a quarterback, running back, or receiver. CFL teams tend to fill these positions with Americans coming from American colleges. Other than Fantuz, the most successful recent recipient of the award has been running back Jesse Lumsden – the 2004 winner – whose success has come as an international bobsledder and not as a player in the CFL.

Fantuz’s move away from Saskatchewan to Hamilton sees him going to the much larger sports media market of Southeastern Ontario. However, the CFL is not as popular in Ontario as it is in Saskatchewan. As one of the most, if not the most recognizable, Canadian player in the CFL, he will have an important role in furthering interest among CFL organizations to give Canadian football players a little more leeway. Hopefully, his continued success and the introduction of more Canadian star players will give the CFL a more distinctly Canadian identity and help the league compete with the NFL in Canada.