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The Canadian Football League can trace its roots back to a soccer game in Rugby, England in 1823 when a player named William Webb Ellis suddenly picked up the ball and started to run with it, only to be tackled by an opponent. Thus was born the game of Rugby Football.

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The game progressed from that point and was introduced to North America by the British Army garrison in Montreal, which played a series of games with McGill University. In 1874, McGill arranged to play a few games at Harvard, which liked the new game so much that it became a feature of the Ivy League. Both the Canadian and American games evolved from this point.

In Canada, the game developed through associations organized in each province and in 1884, the Canadian Rugby Football Union was created as the sport's governing body. By 1890, the game was being played in each province.

In 1909, the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Albert Henry Earl Grey, donated a trophy to be awarded to the team winning the Senior Amateur Football Championship of Canada, better known as the Grey Cup. Since that time, the trophy has survived two world wars, thefts, fires and misplacements and the desire to win it has occasioned festivals, parades, beauty contests, bitter rivalries and substantial expenditures of money.

Initially, the governing Canadian Rugby Union, having replaced the earlier CRFU, determined its champion by having each province declare its winner and decide whether to challenge for the trophy. Each province had its own ideas about playing rules and eligibility of participants and the CRU general meetings were often scenes of bitterness and confrontation. The CRU prevailed and ruled that in order for a team to challenge for the Grey Cup, it must have played the approved CRU rules during that year.

Grey Cup competition was originally open to university teams and other amateur organizations and the inscriptions on the trophy include such teams as University of Toronto, Queen's University and the RCAF Hurricanes. Teams from Western Canada were not permitted to challenge until 1921 when Edmonton Eskimos made their first of 22 Grey Cup appearances. By 1955, the universities and other leagues such as the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) and the Quebec Rugby Football Union (QFRU) had withdrawn from Grey Cup competition.

The Interprovincial Rugby Football Union had been organized in 1907 with teams from Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton. This league became known as the Big Four. The Western Interprovincial Football Union was organized in 1936 with teams in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. Edmonton joined in 1938 but in 1939 World War II interrupted and the WIFU disbanded for the duration, as did the Big Four in the East. Service teams filled the void during the war.

Both leagues resumed competition in 1946 with the same four teams in the East and the original three in the West from Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. The Regina team changed its name to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Edmonton rejoined in 1949 and the British Columbia Lions were admitted in 1954. These nine teams later formed the Canadian Football League.

In 1956, the IRFU and WIFU, still acting under the jurisdiction of the CRU, created the Canadian Football Council to explore the organization of an independent body to govern professional football, which had developed in fact if not in name. The Council recommended the appointment of a Commissioner to oversee the two bodies which changed their names to the Eastern and Western Football Conferences respectively, with each Conference retaining some autonomy.

The name "Canadian Football League" was officially adopted in 1958 and G. Sydney Halter of Winnipeg was appointed the first Commissioner, although he had held a similar post in the WIFU since 1953. The CFL formally withdrew from the CRU, which later changed its name to the Canadian Amateur Football Association to reflect its role in the development of the sport at the amateur level in Canada. In 1966, the CAFA formally transferred to the CFL the title to the Grey Cup trophy. Subsequently the CAFA changed its name to "Football Canada".

In 1961, the CFL commenced a partial interlocking schedule in which each EFC team played at least one game against each WFC team, alternating at home and away each year. This became a full interlocking schedule in 1981. In the meantime, the CFL had in 1967 set up a central office in Toronto, where it remains today. The two conferences were formally dissolved in 1980 with full authority vested in the League office. The Montreal Club withdrew from the League in 1987 and the Winnipeg Club was moved to the East to balance the two divisions at four teams each.

In 1993 the CFL embarked on an expansion program into the USA by admitting a team from Sacramento, California which played in the Western division. Further expansion in 1994 saw Baltimore, Maryland and Shreveport, Louisiana joining the Eastern Division while Las Vegas, Nevada became a member of the Western Division. The Baltimore Club proved to be successful and advanced to the Grey Cup final in its first year of operation, whereas the Las Vegas Club failed to attract local fan support and withdrew from the League after only one season.

Expansion reached its climax in 1995 when the Sacramento Club relocated in San Antonio, Texas and new teams were admitted from Memphis, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama. The League realigned the Divisions on a north-south basis with the five US clubs playing in the American Division against the eight clubs in the Canadian Division. While the "new game with different rules" attracted a certain amount of support from football fans in the US cities it soon became obvious that particularly in the absence of a major television contract, it would be difficult for the League to introduce Americans to the Canadian game properly and market the product effectively. Consequently at the conclusion of the 1995 season, despite the success of Baltimore in winning the Grey Cup, the US Club owners elected to suspend operations and the teams from Birmingham, Memphis, San Antonio and Shreveport withdrew from the League, while the Baltimore Club relocated to Montreal.

For the 1996 season the nine clubs in Canada returned to the same division alignment that prevailed prior to 1987, with Montreal rejoining Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton in the Eastern Division, while Winnipeg returned to its former status as a member of the Western Division. At the conclusion of the 1996 season the Ottawa Club membership was terminated, so for the 1997 season the League operated with eight Clubs, with Winnipeg again in the Eastern Division, which arrangement continued to the end of the 2001 season.

Effective with the 2002 season the league consists of nine teams, with the addition of a new team in Ottawa named the Renegades, as a member of the East Division. Winnipeg again moved back to the West Division, rejoining its traditional rivals in Saskatchewan, Calgary, Edmonton and B.C.

Today the League faces the challenge of continuing as the only professional sports organization to operate wholly within Canada in nine major cities. Competition for fan support has increased over the years with Major League Baseball in two of those cities, NBA basketball in one city and NHL hockey in six of the nine CFL cities. Despite this, competition for interest in the CFL is increasing as evidenced by greater fan attendance at its games, higher television ratings in all Canadian markets and renewed interest in possible expansion to other cities in Canada. The annual Grey Cup championship continues to be the greatest single day sports attraction in Canada and annually provides the largest national television audience. In particular, each of the 2 latest Grey Cup games, in Montreal in 2001 and in Edmonton in 2002, attracted crowds in excess of 60,000 fans. The 2002 game also set a Grey Cup television viewership record when 5.14 million viewers tuned in.

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