Where did the CFL Winless Season Go?

Hamilton Tiger-Cats helmet
HAMILTON, ON - AUG 16: A Hamilton Tiger-Cats helmet lies on the field prior to play against the Calgary Stampeders in a CFL game at Ron Joyce Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The Stampeders defeated the Tiger-Cats 30-20. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The date was November 5 1949, and the Hamilton Wildcats were getting ready for kickoff at Ottawa’s Frank Clair Stadium. The Wildcats had a poor season, going 0-11 which put them dead last in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union. They needed to win their final game, but when the final whistle blew the Ottawa Rough Riders were up 19-11.

That game signalled the end of an era. In 1950, the Wildcats ceased to exist — they merged with the Tigers to form the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. But more importantly, the end of 1949 marked the last winless season in CFL history.

An Old Normal

Before the modern CFL formed in 1956, winless seasons were a relatively common phenomenon. Following 1935, six teams went an entire season without a single win. That means that for every three seasons, there was a winless Canadian football team.

That’s an extremely high rate — the NFL has only 19 in almost a century. Even better, the NBA has never seen a winless season.

Now I’ll admit, there are some historical grey areas here, but they’re an important part of the picture. Firstly, as noted above, the Canadian Football League as we know it didn’t exist until ’56. Previously, Canadian football compromised of the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU), the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU), and the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU).

They were the predecessors to today’s East and West divisions. Many consider the formation of the WIFU in 1936 to mark the start of professional Canadian football. And boy, were things different back then.

Amateurs vs. Pros

Let’s compare the “winless” records of the CFL and the NFL. While the CFL did have a higher rate of teams with winless seasons, it’s a feature that stopped pretty abruptly; the NFL, on the other hand, still sees teams go 0-16 today. So why is this?

The answer lies in the types of teams that have played in the CFL in the past. Nowadays, we’re blessed with an all-pro league, but before the modern CFL era pretty much anyone took part.

Alongside “professional” teams such as the aforementioned Rough Riders and Wildcats were university teams such as the University of Manitoba Varsity, and amateur clubs like the Parkdale Canoe Club. At one point, there were six divisions (two of which had sub-divisions) representing a wide range of skills.

Needless to say, there was a lot of disparity between teams. Major differences in skill and experience between teams meant it was easy for some teams to completely dominate. A similar rarity in modern CFL is the undefeated team — in the early 20th century, there was often at least one undefeated team in each division.

Another disadvantage for amateur teams was there were just so many. With so many new, inexperienced teams it was easy to be bad, and easy to go a year without a win.

Tougher Provincial Competition and Strength of Schedule

Another thing that’s worth bearing in mind when considering why winless seasons have disappeared — interdivisional play didn’t exist until 1961. Similar to modern U Sports, teams only played within their own conference, with the exception of the playoffs.

In the modern era, lousy teams at least have the chance to win when playing against other equally bad sides. Prior to ’61, weak teams were stuck playing against those within their division, making it much easier to go winless.

And they didn’t have a lot of time to get work done, either. Today, the regular season lasts 21 weeks, where teams play 18 games apiece. Back in the 30s and 40s, when the majority of winless seasons occurred, teams were lucky to play more than eight games. While there was some fluctuation over the years, the WIFU averaged eight games a season, while the IRFU and ORFU only played six games a season.

This meant there was little time to rectify mistakes or get out of a rut — if you were bad on day one, you were pretty much done for the season.

A Returning Trend?

It seems pretty clear that the streak of winless seasons in the CFL was all down to historical factors, which means it’s nearly impossible for a modern team to go an entire season without a win…or is it?

If there’s a 2020 CFL season, it will be shortened as a result of COVID-19, and several teams will suffer due to the number of new additions they’ve picked up in the off-season. A winless season for at least one team seems more probable than ever, and would be the icing on the cake of the weirdest CFL season on record.

Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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