• Ben Grant

Asnnel Robo on Global Interest in the CFL

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

The cancellation of the 2020 CFL season was devastating. Owners lost millions league-wide and it caused players such financial hardship that some retired from football to seek other employment opportunities. It also created a rift between the CFLPA and the league, and passionate fans were left feeling abandoned.

Another branch of the league that was also impacted but has rarely been mentioned by mainstream media over the past year was the CFL’s Global subsidiary. The CFL had only just dipped their toes into the global football market as part of their CFL 2.0 initiative. In 2019, for the first time ever, teams were allotted one roster spot and up to two practice team positions for a “Global” player. There’s some fine print to this designation, but essentially, it’s reserved for players not from Canada or the United States who are labeled “Nationals” and “Americans”.

The program launched successfully with a series of global combines and two separate global drafts (one for Mexican players and one for European players). Leading up to the 2020 season, some small tweaks were made and the Global initiative was expanded. Teams would now dress two Global players each game and carry up to three additional Global players on their practice roster.

There was worldwide buzz about the CFL leading up to the combines, albeit in small football communities around the world. Argos hats weren’t exactly flying off vendors’ shelves on Champs-Élysées, La Rambla or Via Toledo, but it was buzz, all the same. Then in March, COVID-19 made its presence felt in Canada and the now-combined, newly-named Global Draft was postponed and ultimately cancelled, squashing the momentum that had been built.

It probably won’t take much to get that excitement going again, but a year of progress has been lost in what was a terrific plan to increase global CFL awareness and fandom. Baseball and basketball fans already know the impact players from overseas can have on a fanbase. The key for it to truly take hold is production. That’s something that wasn’t achieved in 2019, and probably the main reason this initiative isn’t on the radar for most CFL fans.

Winnipeg’s Thiadric Hansen is probably the only Global player CFL fans can name from a team other than their own, and that’s likely because of one play. Hansen was a special teams contributor and actually made it into the defensive line rotation, tallying a modest five tackles and a sack over the course of the season. In the Grey Cup game, however, he made an explosive special teams hit that went viral. On the kickoff, after Winnipeg went up 18-6, Hansen picked up right upback Mike Daly at the Hamilton 30 and bowled him into returner Frankie Williams at the 23. It was spectacular, but it was just one play.

Why wasn’t there more production from Global players in 2019? There are billions of non-American and Canadian people in the world. Is it too much to expect one of them to amass 1000 yards or sack the quarterback 10 times? Yes. At least for now. If football were simply about the number of available bodies, York and U of T would win the Vanier Cup every year and China and India would be the primary suppliers of NFL talent. The world is full of exceptional athletes, but most of them don’t grow up dreaming about playing football, especially outside North America.

In the case of Toronto Argonauts Global running back, Asnnel Robo, there’s no question about his athletic ability, but getting him into football took a series of coincidences and fortunate events. At 5’7”, 217lbs, his 4.5 second 40 tells you just about everything you need to know about his athleticism. But like many great athletes around the world, playing football never occurred to him as a young kid, so he grew up playing soccer. In his late teens, when his physical strength started having a negative impact on his soccer play, he didn’t turn immediately to football, he looked towards MMA first. He might otherwise have turned to rugby in a country like France, but it would likely have seemed far too late.

How incredible an athlete does one have to be to start playing a sport at 18 and end up signing a professional contract a few years later? Imagine that in the context of hockey. What if there were dozens of Pop Warner leagues in Marseille begging Robo to play football when he was five? What if playing football was the popular thing to do for young kids in Marseile? He had to cross an ocean to attend a CEGEP and then continue on to university in a foreign country in order to play football at an appropriate level. That’s a ridiculous level of commitment to a sport he had just started playing, but it became an immediate passion and that was his only available path.

There are a surprising number of youth football leagues around the world, but their popularity pales in comparison to other sports. What will change that is the development of international football stars. Evidence suggests if a Global player becomes a football star, his native country will take an interest, and all it takes is one star to inspire a generation of kids.

If the route to worldwide interest in the CFL depends on Global players becoming stars, then the development of these players should be a league focus, and the roster composition requirement changes made over the past two seasons are proof that it is. If it isn’t Asnnel Robo, Thiadric Hansen, or the absurdly quick Benjamin Plu of the BC Lions, it will be someone. With as many as 45 Global players developing on CFL rosters and practice squads each year, one of these days a Global player will hit and become a star, capturing the heart of an entire country. Argos hats flying off the shelves on Champs-Élysées.

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