Late last week former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, aka “Johnny Football”, signed with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-cats.
The Ti-cats, wanting to upgrade their quarterback situation, landed a much needed addition at the position.
The CFL however will come out as the real winner, adding a personality to the league that they’ve never had in the social media age.
Love him or hate him, Manziel is good for the CFL, especially for the CFL in Toronto. Not only does Toronto love star power, but major leagues survive on the weight of their stars and marketable personalities. The NBA, NFL and MLB have all done this well over the years. The CFL? Not so much.
The CFL has traditionally done well in small Canadian markets (i.e. the Rough Riders in Saskatchewan), but for the CFL to be a true success it needs to resonate in the country’s biggest market. Sadly, when the Argos won the Grey Cup last fall, sports fans in the 6ix barely batted an eye.
Because of his success in college and his much maligned off field issues, Manziel brings intrigue to the CFL as a redemption story worth watching, and believe me, Americans and a lot Torontonians will be watching.
There’s something about Manziel’s charisma that attracts people to him. He’s regularly hanging out with well-known artists, actors and personalities, relevant to today’s pop culture. At one point he was even close to the 6 God himself, Drake.
If you ask around, most of his critics would say too much focus on his social life has led to his quick downfall to start his professional career. While I somewhat agree, we can’t ignore Manziel’s very public struggle with alcohol abuse that caused him to fall out of the limelight in the early stages of his NFL career.
Last year, Manziel professed to be sober after spending some time in rehab and had a desire to get back into football. After balling out in a Spring League for NFL prospects, Hamiton is giving him his second shot at pro ball.
To the CFL purists, this move might be questionable, especially after the Ti-cats traded Zach Collaros to the Roughriders in the off season. Really, no one should question whether or not Johnny Football can have an impact on the field. There will be a lot of Doug Flutie comparisons early on as both were former Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks under 6’ tall who went on to become NFL cast-offs looking to prove their worth in the Great White North.
But Manziel’s real worth is bringing the CFL to the attention of popular culture and this social media savvy generation. Currently, Manziel has close to four million followers on Instagram and Twitter combined. In comparison the CFL has about 120,000 between the same two social networks, so basically the CFL has just added a new audience of 4 million followers by simply signing one guy.
Aside from adding a new audience (and a younger one at that), I fully expect to see the CFL’s American media coverage increase with the likes of ESPN, Bleacher Report, Fox Sports and others requesting media accreditation for Ti-cat games. More CFL coverage in the U.S. means more potential players viewing the CFL as a viable career option should the NFL not work out.
I’ll be honest. I’m a big grassroots football fan, but as a Torontonian, the CFL really isn’t my cup of tea and I know I’m not alone. Unlike other Canadian cities, the CFL has to compete with multiple North American professional sports franchises for attention.
For the growth of the league to continue in Toronto, the CFL has to be crafty in its use of social media marketing and corporate branding in its attempt to lure some of that attention away. Manziel’s personal brand power is the key to making that happen in 2018.
I’m excited about the impact he can have on the field, but I’m more excited to see how he can help the CFL be more culturally relevant across North America.