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The Basics Of Canadian Football For American Sports Bettors

James Murphy
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  • The 2021 Canadian Football League (CFL) season begins on Thursday, August 5.
  • The 2020 CFL season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were the 2019 CFL Grey Cup champions.

The Canadian Football League (CFL) season gets underway on Thursday, August 5 after an 18 month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the most part, the CFL will be ‘business as usual’ in the 2021 season. The start of the campaign has been pushed back a couple of months (it usually starts in mid-June and runs through late November) and it will be 14 games long instead of the usual 18 games. In most seasons, teams play a pair of exhibition preseason games that will not take place this year. Due to the late start and the shortened schedule, the season will end in early December. The Eastern Semifinal and Western Semifinals will be played on Sunday, November 28, the Divisional Finals on Sunday, December 5 and the 108th Grey Cup on Sunday, December 12.

CFL football might not be at the same competitive level as the NFL but it is a very entertaining brand of gridiron action. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the coverage it deserves in the US sports media. The good news is that thanks to the Internet there’s plenty of Canadian media sources available online and that has made following–and handicapping–the sport much easier. Many American fans don’t realize just how long the sport has been popular in Canada. The CFL has existed since 1930 and the league championship–known as the Grey Cup–dates back to 1909.

Most importantly, the CFL presents a great betting opportunity for the astute handicapper. This is where the relative lack of interest in the US works in our favor. The lines in CFL football have never been particularly sharp and to the extent that there is a ‘public perception’ of the sport outside of Canada it’s pretty much inaccurate. For whatever reason, fans have a tendency to think that the CFL is similar to Arena Football in style of play. That couldn’t be further from the truth. While there are a few rules designed to open up the passing game it’s nothing like the end to end shootout you’ll find in Arena Football. In fact, what makes a team successful in the CFL is essentially the same as in the NFL–a balanced offense with a strong rushing component and a capable defense.


Canadian Football has some unique characteristics and that’s a good place to start understanding the game. We’ve already talked about one of the more interesting elements of the CFL–the quota of Canadian players that each team must have on the roster and in their starting lineup. This system is known as the ‘ratio’ and was explained in detail in a previous article:


There are plenty of other differences between CFL football and the NFL game. In fact, the differences begin at the most fundamental level–with the football itself. The CFL football is bigger–essentially the same size as a #3 rugby ball making it slightly longer and fatter than the NFL football. The CFL field dimensions are longer (110 yards) and wider (65 yards) than the NFL gridiron. The CFL end zones are 20 yards deep (as opposed to 10 yards in the NFL) and the goalposts are on the goal line while the NFL goal posts are on the end line at the back of the endzone.

Despite the prevalence of the metric system in Canada the CFL rulebook still uses Imperial measurements. That means you need 10 yards to get a first down in the CFL, not 9.144 meters. One major difference, however, is that CFL teams only have 3 downs to move the ball 10 yard as opposed to the 4 downs familiar to NFL fans. If you listen to the play by play of CFL games it takes some time to get used to hearing the announcers talk about a team going ‘two and out’.

CFL teams also have 12 players per side on the field, obviously one more than the NFL’s 11. The extra player is a receiver on offense and a safety on defense and this is likely where the misconception that the CFL is is ‘video game football’ originates. There are a few other subtle differences as well—teams only have 1 time out per half, only 20 seconds between plays, and all backfield players can be in motion prior to the snap (as opposed to only one in the NFL).

Scoring is the same as in the NFL with one exception–that is the ‘single’ or ‘rouge’. When I first started to follow CFL football and I saw a game tied 1-1 at the end of the first quarter I thought my Don Best odds screen was malfunctioning. It wasn’t–in the CFL teams can score a single point called (more typically) a ‘single’ or occasionally a ‘rouge’. The origin of the ‘rouge’ term isn’t really known–the word means ‘red’ in French and there are theories that at one point a red flag was used to signify the score in the early days.

The most comprehensive explanation for the ‘single’ I’ve heard is this: any kicked ball that becomes dead while in possession of a team in its own goal area, or goes out of bounds or over the dead ball line. If a punt goes through the end zone it’s a single. If a punt returner kneels down after catching the ball it’s a single. A missed field goal that sails out of the end zone is also a single.

In the second part of this intro we’ll look at some basic handicapping concepts for Canadian football that I’ve found to be effective over the years.

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