Did you know that football is the only major professional sport that keeps Canada at arm’s length? Think about it: you’ve got the Toronto Raptors and the Blue Jays. The NHL is chock full of Canadian teams between the Canadians, the Maple Leafs, the Canucks, the Oilers, the Flames, the Senators, and the Jets. Why is there no Canadian NFL team?
The answer lies in another three-letter acronym: the CFL. Since 1958, the Canadian Football League has been playing its own version of the gridiron game. Slightly different than its American counterpart, Canadian football has inspired a small fan base of US viewers. In fact, in the mid-90s, the league attempted to expand into America, setting up six teams south of the border.
This is the story of the rise and fall of the CFL’s American expansion.
Let’s set the stage first and talk about what makes the Canadian version of football distinct from the American. Many Canadians and some Americans actually prefer this version, with a few key rule changes making for a faster game.
Perhaps the most significant difference, and certainly the one that impacts the timing of the game the most, is the number of downs.
American football operates on a series of four downs per possession. Canadian football uses three. As such, teams must be slightly more aggressive during their possessions. They only have two tries to reach the ten-yard advancement before they must consider punting the ball away.
American football is played with eleven players per team on the field. Canadian football plays with twelve. Certain positions are thus removed, like safeties and defensive tight ends. Instead, each team has a position called the slotback.
Another key difference between the two games is the size of the field itself. American football plays on a 100-yard long field, 53 yards across. Canadian football plays on a 110-yard long field, 65 yards across. It is both longer and wider than the US version.
At a 34% increase in size, this makes a movement towards the end zone 34% more difficult. It also makes for a tricky logistical problem if you’re ever trying to play the Canadian game in America. How’s that for foreshadowing?
Contributing to the feeling of a faster pace, Canadian football requires gameplay to begin twenty seconds after the referee blows their whistle. American teams, both on the collegiate and NFL level, have 40 seconds. Canadian teams also have one less timeout per half.
There are several more differences, but these are the key elements that distinguish the two games. While fans of either version would understand the progress of their counterparts, these rule discrepancies can stack up and helped contribute to the confusion when the CFL landed in America.
Timing, desperation, and a dash of optimism contributed to the plan to expand the Canadian Football League into the United States. Ultimately, the experiment was doomed to fail, which begs the question: why did anyone consider this a good idea in the first place?
Glad you asked. By the mid-1990s, the CFL was experiencing serious financial woes. Except for the Edmonton Eskimos, every team in the league was bleeding money. The league had broken off its television sponsorship in 1987.
That same year the Montreal Alouettes folded for the second time in half a decade. The Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders both had to crowdfund in order to survive. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers racked up $3 million in debt. Ownership squabbles and dramatics spread across nearly every team in the league. In short, the CFL was in trouble.
Expanding into America was in many ways a Hail Mary play, hoping that a small fraction of American fervor for football would be enough to get the league back on steady ground.
At the same time, the World League of American Football — the NFL-backed attempt at introducing the game to an international market and protecting the league from any claims of monopolizing the business — was closing its doors after just two seasons. The WLAF, later called NFL Europe, would return in 1995, but not before the CFL seized an opportunity.
In 1992, Larry Smith became the CFL Commissioner and started to actively pursue two of the now-defunct WLAF teams: the Sacramento Surge and the San Antonio Riders. Under the CFL, they’d play as the Gold Miners and the Texans, respectively, but before the 1993 season kicked off, the organization in Texas fell apart. The Texans crumbled, and Sacramento became the first and sole American team participating in the CFL.
One could argue, and many have, that the Gold Miners are the reason the CFL as we know it still exists. In addition to the influx of money from ticket sales and merchandise, the CFL got money from new American teams by charging each a fee to join the league. When the Sacramento Gold Miners entered the league in 1993, it provided the organization enough money to stay afloat during its economic crisis.
It also provided the CFL with enough funding to start looking for new teams and cities. In 1994, three more American teams joined the CFL: The Las Vegas Posse, the Baltimore CFL Colts, and the Shreveport Pirates. The Pirates were built up from half of the Ottawa Rough Riders. To appease ownership murmuring about moving to the United States, the CFL allowed half the team to open shop in Louisiana.
Attendance for each of the American teams varied widely. Given that the CFL played during the summer, the Las Vegas Posse had particular difficulty convincing fans to show up in the desert heat.
In Baltimore, on the other hand, games were soon pulling in upwards of 30,000 fans, outperforming every other team in the league, Canadian teams included. The Baltimore CFL Colts were the first professional football team in the city since the original Colts left for Indianapolis and Baltimore was clearly glad to have a home team again.
The CFL Colts were also very good, helping to stoke fan loyalty and pride. They went all the way to the championship in their first season, missing out on the Grey Cup by only three points. They were required to change their name to the Baltimore Football Club in less than a year after the NFL’s Colts complained.
Despite some initial promise, after just two seasons in America, the CFL was suffering. They went ahead with further expansion, the Memphis Mad Dogs and the Birmingham Barracudas debuting in 1994 and 1995. At the same time, the Sacramento Gold Miners abandoned California for Texas, picking up the abandoned ruins of the San Antonio Texans name. The Las Vegas Posse initially was going to be moved to Jackson, Mississippi, but the deal fell through, and the team folded.
Excitement around the Mad Dogs was initially high, but the team struggled to find room to play the larger game. Remember when we said the CFL faced logistical problems? The Mad Dogs had to fit awkward pentagon-shaped end zones into Liberty Bowl stadium. They also cheated slightly, marking a yard three inches shorter than it should be in a scandalous, though hilarious attempt to get the Canadian game to fit into American fields.
In the 1995 season, the CFL reorganized its divisions. With five American teams in the south division and eight Canadian teams in the north division, the playoffs would consist of the best three and five from each. The Baltimore Football Club, now called the Stallions, was still excelling. On November 19, 1995, they became the first and only American team to win the Grey Cup, beating the Calgary Stampeders, 37–20.
The Stallions’ victory should have marked a turning point in the CFL’s American expansion, the beginning of a competitive dynasty. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Interest in the league was still sparse across other teams, and in the same month that Baltimore was building towards their Grey Cup victory, the city received far more exciting football news: It was going to receive its own NFL team.
This is the stuff of football legends.
In November 1995, Art Modell announced the Cleveland Browns would be relocating to Baltimore — we could write a 30-page thesis on this, don’t get us started — and all interest in the CFL quickly fell apart. The news of the Grey Cup win hardly made a ripple in local Baltimore sports news. The Stallions were done.
The CFL’s biggest success falling apart created a domino effect. By January of 1996, every US team had folded, and the CFL announced it was disbanding its American experiment. Commissioner Larry Smith called the move a “retrenchment.”
After almost two decades of economic upheaval, the CFL slowly brought itself back afloat with a loan from the NFL and a series of television deals. Since then, the CFL has experienced some high highs and low lows. Like many live sports, the coronavirus pandemic handed the CFL a serious blow as the league is disproportionately reliant on ticket sales.
Every couple of years or so, we hear rumors of the Canadian league looking south again. You never know. Stranger things have happened.
Now that you have the storied history of the CFL in America, let’s take a closer look at the teams that made up the failed experiment.
As we mentioned, the Gold Miners provided a much-needed financial boost for the CFL in its serious time of need. Does that soften the fact that they went 6–12 in their debut season? We think so. In their second year in Sacramento, they improved on that, leaving the city with a 15-20-1 overall record.
In San Antonio, the Gold Miners, then called the Texans, were a fun team to watch. In their one and only season, they went 12–6, missing out on the Grey Cup by only one game to the Baltimore Stallions.
Owner Fred Anderson was something of a sports business legend. A self-made man, he followed the Sacramento Surge through its multiple lives and also owned stake in the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Sacramento Kings, and the Modesto A’s, a minor league affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.
We have t-shirts honoring both iterations of the CFL team. The San Antonio Texans wore green and white, and their logo featured a mean-looking cowboy. The Sacramento Gold Miners also sported green and white, with a logo featuring a gold spark at the end of a pickaxe.
The short-lived Las Vegas Posse may have finished their one and only season at the bottom of their division. They may have held the record for lowest attended CFL game of all time. They may have been the site of one of the worst renditions of O Canada ever performed.
But if nothing else, the Las Vegas Posse had a cool-looking uniform. Decked out in gold and black, the Posse’s helmets featured a sheriff's badge. Check it out on our vintage t-shirt here.
Remnants of the Baltimore Stallions exist to this day in the Montreal Alouettes who were brought back to life after the Stallions fell apart.
They appeared in the Grey Cup in both of their seasons playing in the CFL, wrapping up the franchise with a 27–9 record. They are one of the only CFL teams to ever win 15 games in a season.
In the end, the Stallions would end up being a small chapter in Baltimore’s football history but an important one. The team showed that the city was ready to support a new football team. In many ways, they ushered in the Browns, who would then make way for the Ravens.
Throughout its name change, the CFL’s team in Baltimore always played in blue and white. Their logo featured a stallion with a flowing mane and three stars, which you can see on our t-shirt here. No bias, but it’s cooler than the Colts.
Early attendance numbers in Shreveport were promising, but poor performance allowed the team to falter, and the Pirates ended their career with an 8–28 record.
The Pirates had to contend with drama off the field with the owners, the Gliebermans, often interfering with hiring moves and failing to pay the bills.
The Pirates played their only two seasons in purple and orange, with a long capped pirate featured in their logo.
The Barracudas were the last team to receive a US expansion deal from the CFL. By the end of their first season, the division fell apart.
The team did alright, attendance-wise, over the summer. The city had no NFL ties and was considered neutral ground, which is why it was considered by the CFL. That all changed at the start of the college football season (roll tide). Attendance suffered, and the Barracudas failed to pick up the fan base it needed to save the league.
The Birmingham Barracudas played in teal and orange, resembling the Miami Dolphins. Check out their logo on our vintage t-shirt, which includes a fierce-looking fish.
Last but not least, there was the Memphis Mad Dogs, perhaps the most scandal-ridden CFL American team.
Once college football returned, attendance numbers sank, and even the thrill of a deflate-gate style scandal couldn’t bring the city of Memphis to care about its CFL team.
The silver lining is that the Mad Dogs had a cool logo, playing in green, white, and gold.
We have to salute the amount of risk-taking going on by the Canadian Football League in the 90s. While the CFL’s expansion into America was doomed from the start, it certainly wasn’t boring.