This past weekend, about 50 football players with CFL dreams participated in what amounted to a public job interview at Varsity Stadium, running through the tests and interviews that comprise the CFL National Combine.
At the same time, the league stepped up efforts to package and market it as a broadcast property online, with coaches and executives participating in chats over Twitter and ScribbleLive, while key combine events streamed live on the CFL’s website.
Every February, the NFL Scouting Combine devours 60 hours of programming on the league’s TV network, attracting millions of viewers and its own set of sponsors. The CFL, meanwhile, hopes to grow their event as a way to keep fans and sponsors interested during a long off-season. It’s not as big as the NFL’s event, but it’s just as important to the league.
“This is a good content and fan engagement event,” says Christina Litz, the CFL’s vice president of broadcast and media assets. “Fans have an insatiable appetite (for combine results). Year over year, our fans are wanting more and more.”
A generation ago, scouting combines — so named because participants perform a combination of tests — were important only to coaches and executives. To the extent that fans cared about weight lifting and sprint results, they were happy with the pre-draft dispatches that trickled out via the media.
Still, fans demand more data and year-round engagement, making scouting combines in the NFL, CFL and NHL more prominent. Last month, nearly 600,000 U.S. viewers watched the fifth day of the week-long NFL combine.
Sports industry experts say the NFL combine draws viewers because many participants are U.S. college stars who are already famous. In contrast, the Canadian-based university and junior league players populating the CFL combine rarely play on TV and don’t arrive with a built-in fan base.
So if the CFL can’t sell fans on seeing college superstars interview for pro jobs, they have to sell something else.
“I would bill this as, ‘Here’s the future — see them here first,” says Brian Cooper, a sports sponsorship consultant and president of the S&E Sponsorship Group. “Throw some hype into it. You’re selling hope. You’re selling speed.”
And speed sells, as corporations attaching themselves to the NFL combine demonstrate.
While Nike is the U.S. league’s apparel provider, Under Armour sponsors the scouting combine, providing shorts, shirts and sweats for every player. But the players choose their own shoes and for the last two years Adidas has offered $ 100,000 to the player running the fastest 40-yard dash wearing the company’s cleats.
No deep-pocketed sponsor has put up prize money for the CFL combine, but the league recognizes the 40-yard dash offers a chance at both a broad and deeply engaged audience. The league planned to stream the sprints live on its site, and upload standout performances to Snapchat.
Drawing a large viewership remains a challenge, especially in late March, when the NCAA basketball tournaments, spring training baseball, and NHL and NBA regular-season games compete for sports fans’ attention and sponsors’ dollars.
Given that landscape, Ryerson University professor Cheri Bradish says online broadcasts are the best option for the CFL. The combine might be an established event, but it’s a fledgling marketing and broadcast property and can use the internet to target its most dedicated fans.
“Will it cut through the clutter? We don’t know,” says Bradish, the Loretta Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson. “Digital is changing the landscape. You can package sport in a way you couldn’t before . . . It opens up opportunities for smaller, lower-budgeted events to be creative and have a footprint.”