New league starts football tiering
The creation of the Ontario Provincial Football League is the harbinger of major change in age-class football in this province but might seem a little confusing to parents, players and fans.
And not all parties involved are overjoyed at the establishment of another provincewide league for Ontario minor football players.
Proponents of the OPFL, which begins play this weekend, say the new loop is the first step “toward a level playing field” for Ontario minor football. The guiding principle is matching teams from relatively equal football-population markets.
But its critics say the league further fragments the game, could marginalize organizations that won’t be in the OPFL’s Premier Division, and will be more expensive.
Although there are several leagues in the province, there had been two primary competing leagues in Ontario for top players aged 18 and under: the Ontario Varsity Football League, which counts the Hamilton Ironmen among its members; and the Ontario Football Conference, which included the Burlington Stampeders and the Hamilton Football Association, operating the Hamilton Varsity Tiger Cats and the Junior Tiger-Cats.
Both leagues continue to exist but an executive of the OVFL says it has lost eight of its 19 organizations to the new OPFL.
The Tiger-Cats and Stampeders have left the OFC and are now both in the Premier Division of the OPFL.
Don Edwards, president of the Ontario Football Alliance, the government-recognized provincial umbrella organization for minor football, says, “This is the first step toward tiering football … larger football centres will play against larger centres.”
The concept of tiering age-class football was discussed at the OFA committee level, then the idea of the new league was put to its board of directors. OVFL representatives voted against the concept, but it carried.
The new league will have bantam (ages 13 and 14), junior varsity (15 and 16) and varsity (17 and 18) teams.
There is a “premier” division for larger football centres, and a “regional rep” division for smaller programs, both based on “football density.”
Premier division teams that have enough players for a second team can also enter those teams in the regional rep division. Many programs in the old Ontario Minor Football League, which included a number of smaller centres and some second- and third-tier teams from the OVFL and OFL, have joined the OPFL regional reps. According to its website, the OMFL still has six teams for 8-to-12-yearolds, none of them near the Hamilton-Burlington area.
“High school football population is the deciding factor,” in tiering, says Bert McCallum, one of the founders of the OFA and the OPFL.
“Essex will play Burlington on Opening Night, and those programs have never played each other because they’ve been in competitive
leagues. There is a close balance in the number of high school teams that they each can draw from.
“Both the OFC and OV are good leagues, but there were too many teams and some good teams had six of their eight games against weaker teams. There were lots of absolute blowouts.”
The Hamilton Ironmen remain in the OVFL and vice-president Gord Duffield says, “We were never asked about tiering. The first I ever heard about it was in The Spectator.
“It may be a good thing, it may be a bad thing. It may give more kids an opportunity to play, but it might water things down because it separates different centres.”
Duffield says things won’t change much for the Ironmen teams because they’ll play most of the same competition as before, such as Toronto Thunder, Metro West, Cornwall and the Oshawa Hawkeyes.
Joe Sardo, commissioner of the Hamilton Football Association, feels the OFC may eventually amalgamate with the OPFL. Although the HFA first teams will play in the OPFL premier division, any second teams will remain in the OFC.
“Our understanding is that it’s the first step toward unifying football in the province,” Sardo says.
“Take Junior Varsity: we’ll have 110 kids try out. That gives us a huge advantage over, say, Port Dover, where they might have 30 kids. Us obliterating a team does not help football.”
However Sousa argues, “Once you are stigmatized as not a Tier 1 club, kids don’t want to play and I don’t think they’ll travel to play in another organization.”
Edwards counters, “It’s not whether you’re Tier 1 or 2, it’s not based on the calibre of football, but the size of the football population.”