Photos by Greg Johnston, Stadium Journey
For the second year in a row, the Toronto Argonauts defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders in front of sold-out crowds on the east coast of Canada. Last year, the Canadian Football League (CFL) “Touchdown Atlantic” game was held in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, which is a small and charming university town along the shores of the Minas Basin. The much anticipated and successful event saw over 10,000 football fans travel to Acadia University’s campus to experience the CFL in Atlantic Canada. This year, the Touchdown Atlantic game was held on the campus of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. It was clear this event was more than a regular season football game between two of the league’s better teams, it was a showcase event for the continued pursuit of an expansion franchise in the Maritime region. The game was featured on national television, current players and mascots made time to engage with the fans, and former CFL stars including Mike “Pinball” Clemons made the trip to help promote the league.
As the CFL attempted to promote the league to the local fanbase, the city also made a
huge effort in promoting the Maritimes to the CFL and its traveling fans. Huskies Stadium normally holds a capacity of around 2,000 football fans, far too few to host a professional football game that would be featured on national television. The stadium was expanded to seat over 11,000 people with the use of temporary bleachers. Replicas of a lighthouse and fishing boat put a maritime flare on the outskirts of the field. The lawns that surround the stadium were used for pregame tailgating events, featuring food trucks serving traditional local fare, live music, and family friendly activities (including riding a mechanical shark!). Even the beer that was served was from Church Brewery, a Nova Scotia craft brewery from Wolfville.
For an unusually large event in a traditionally small venue, the organizers at Huskies Stadium did a fantastic job planning the event. The campus is situated in a low density neighbourhood, normally resulting in traffic delays. But vehicular traffic flowed with minimal disruption, even though parking was in limited supply. Buses shuttled fans to-and-from major transportation nodes around the city. Once you arrived on campus, several well visible signs and maps guided fans to their appropriate entrance into the stadium. After getting through security, certain fans were given wrist bands to signify the areas of the stadium they were allowed. Fans either had tickets to the temporary bleachers, club tickets, or standing room only tickets which were situated off the south endzone.
The matter in which the CFL and the city of Halifax proceed with a potential expansion franchise will be interesting to follow. Prior to the pandemic, citizens of Halifax have been debating whether they want a CFL franchise. Halifax already has a supportive fanbase for its local sports. The Halifax Wanderers currently lead the Canadian Premier Soccer League in attendance by a wide margin, and although the Halifax Thunderbirds of the National Lacrosse League play in the smallest venue in the league, they ranked 8th out of 15 franchises in attendance in 2023. Back in 2018, the ownership group heading the expansion team already named the team the Atlantic Schooners, which was the same name as the defunct CFL franchise in the 1980’s that never played a game. During the Touchdown Atlantic’s halftime show, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie used a football analogy, saying Halifax is “in the red-zone” regarding gaining an expansion franchise. The CFL currently has nine teams, four of them in the eastern conference. It makes sense for a league with weekly games to have an even number of teams to balance the schedule. The biggest obstacle appears to be a lack of a suitable stadium. Two possible existing stadiums have been discussed for expansion. One is Huskies Stadium, the other is Wanderers Field with a current capacity of around 6,500. Currently the smallest CFL venue is the 20,025-seat Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, home of the Montreal Alouettes. The prospect of a new stadium in Halifax has been discussed prior to the pandemic, but a sparingly used stadium does not appear to be financially viable without other tenants.
By the end of the fourth quarter, it was clear Touchdown Atlantic showcased the best in professional football to an area that is - almost - ready for their own team. The game sold out quickly, drew fans locally and attracted visitors to the city. Stay tuned for what comes next for the Atlantic Schooners.