New CFL Rule Changes May Impact Sports Betting Totals, Over/Unders

Written By Andrew Bucholtz on May 3, 2022 - Last Updated on October 3, 2022
Winnipeg Blue Bombers Quarterback Matt Nichols (15) throwing down-field during 2019 Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Toronto Argonauts game at BMO Field in Toronto

Ways to bet on the Canadian Football League when its 2022 preseason begins in May will be plentiful in Ontario.

While the entrance of private-sector operators in Ontario already provided a variety of futures lines, another element to keep an eye on as we approach the full-season season is game totals and the over-under.

This week, new rules announced by the CFL may mean the changes affect those common types of wagers.

CFL looks to boost offence and excitement with rule changes

With sports betting in Canada, provincial lotteries and private sportsbooks offer CFL game totals, among other markets.

So, many opportunities exist for punters across the country to bet on the CFL. Historically, totals betting has been popular with the CFL and is currently popular with the NHL, especially with the increased scoring this season.

However, the CFL has recently seen the opposite offensive trend, with points per team per game dropping over the last five seasons. That number (based on the regular season and calculated using the team stats at CFL.ca) went from 23.5 in 2016 to 23.2 in 2017. In 2018 the low hit 22.3 and still lower at 21.9 in 2019.

Subsequently, the CFL cancelled the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the shortened 2021 season (14 games versus the usual 18) bottomed out at 19.1 points per team per game.

With offence often associated with excitement, it’s not surprising that boosting offence was a focus of the CFL’s rule changes this year. And it seems some of those changes will likely have a significant impact on points per game.

Less ground to cover could translate to higher game scores

The biggest change? There will be less ground for offences to cover.

After an opponent completes a successful field goal or a single, teams start their offence at the 40-yard line, not the 35.

If, however, the team chooses a kickoff, they start at the 30 instead of the 35. And kickoffs following safeties, at the 20 rather than the 25.

There’s also been a meaningful change to kickoffs and punts that should encourage significant returns.

Kick and punt returns have often been an exciting part of the CFL game, with the large field allowing for spectacular returns over the years. But the kicking teams have repeatedly tried to limit those through a couple of methods, which will now be harder to do.

Fewer flags and bigger returns possible

One example? The no yards penalty.

There are no fair catches in Canadian football, but all offside players must be five or more yards from the returner when they touch the ball. (Offside players are those lined up at or ahead of the ball at the kick.)

Historically, violating this CFL rule while the ball is in the air has meant a 15-yard penalty. If the ball hit the ground before the returner touched it, it was only five yards. So, cover teams often took the penalty to limit a dangerous return.

It will now be a 15-yard penalty under all circumstances with the changes. That should mean fewer flags and more opportunities for kick returns.

Another change should further enhance opportunities for returns, too.

Punts that go out of bounds more than 15 yards from the goal line will now be penalized with a 10-yard gain. Previously this only applied to punts that went out of bounds more than 20 yards from the goal line. So punters trying to punt out of bounds to limit returns will have less margin for error.

Expect more first downs, touchdowns and field goals

As a result, teams should start their offensive push further up the field.

And that’s an essential part of the scoring equation. It’s not just points per game per team that’s declined since 2016. It’s also first downs per game per team, which fell from 21.5 in 2016 to 19.5 last year.

Even if the first downs don’t improve, the kicking spot changes alone should benefit teams by nearly five yards per drive. The return changes are also likely to help. With teams only averaging 4.8 yards per play last season (that number was 5.5 in 2016), that’s even better than an average free play. And it means more drives ending with touchdowns or field goals, even if the offence doesn’t actually improve.

But, notably, the CFL has also made changes to improve its offence.

Offensive innovation likely due to a more centred field

Here the significant change is moving the hash marks to 28 yards from each sideline rather than the previous 24. They’re now also nine yards apart rather than 17. That means the ball will be closer to the centre of the field.

The goal here is to improve the utility of the field-side receiver. Teams have often been hesitant to target that receiver, especially near the sidelines. The ball would travel a long distance laterally in the air, raising the possibility of an interception from a defensive back jumping the route without raising the air yards gained.

A more centred field should help alleviate those concerns. That could spur deeper offensive playbooks and more offensive innovation. (Another change, allowing two quarterbacks on the field at once, is likely only to come up in a tiny subset of trick plays, but it is notable nonetheless.)

Unlike the field position changes on kicks, the hash mark changes don’t have a specific yardage effect. It’s possible that defences adapt to the changes and that offences don’t get any better. But the impact initially seems positive and should lead to more offensive involvement for field-side receivers. And it may very well lead to the intended goal of a boosted offence.

Effect on over/under sports betting lines TBD

From a betting perspective, it will be fascinating to see the individual game over-under lines sportsbooks and lotteries set as we approach the first preseason (May 23) and regular-season (June 9) games. And what they do there may tell us a bit about their reaction to these changes.

That first preseason game has the defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers facing the Saskatchewan Roughriders.  Last year, those teams averaged 22.3 and 18.9 points per game (second and seventh in the nine-team CFL, respectively).

The first regular-season game will see the Montreal Alouettes take on the Calgary Stampeders, with those teams averaging 22.4 and 21.4 points per game (first and third, respectively) last year.

Obviously, other factors impact line setting beyond rule changes, including teams’ offseason moves and projected weather, etc. But if those totals are set higher than one might expect from the 2021 season averages, the new rules changes may be a reason why.

Photo by Gavin Napier, Shutterstock
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Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz covered the CFL from 2010-16 for Yahoo Canada Sports. He currently works as a news editor for Awful Announcing.

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