STAYING AWAY IN FLOCKS

As far as most Canadians are concerned, their pro football league is for the birds, a victim of terrible management
November 09, 1987

FACE IT. All that strike business made you nostalgic for the good old Canadian Football League. Remember the happy days of the last strike, when three downs, 12 players and the Saskatchewan Something or Others filled up your Trinitron? The CFL was a pleasant pigskin pacifier until the prodigal players came home. Now, you say, whatever happened to the good old CFL? Glad you asked....

Well, for starters, the good old CFL is almost sure to last the whole season. After that, it's a possible third-and-punt situation. Put it this way: In polls in Canada, the CFL finishes slightly ahead of acid rain these days. The Montreal Alouettes folded last June. The Calgary Stampeders pretty much folded and then reopened. The Ottawa Rough Riders aren't far from folding. The Saskatchewan Roughriders ought to fold until they can think up their own name.

Ottawa really ought to. It can't give tickets away. In a magnanimous gesture last month the Ottawa players bought 7,000 from the club—paid for them with their own money—in the hope of selling them to the faithful citizenry, who would get not only that week's game at the regular price but also another game absolutely free. By kickoff the players had sold 1,500 tickets. They ate the rest. Then they went out and lost their eighth straight game. Burp.

The former Ottawa owner, Allan Waters, must have laughed. He was about ready to pull the sheet over the Rough Riders' heads this year when he found some Ottawans willing to buy the club—for $1 (Canadian). Some people think Waters snookered 'em. Ottawa needed to average 27,000 fans this year to break even. So far the Rough Riders have averaged 18,800. Harold Ballard, owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, lost $3 million last season—and he won the Grey Cup. As for the league as a hole, er, whole, fans have come out unanimously in their undying indifference toward it. Last year the CFL drew an average of 130,000 fewer TV viewers per week than in 1985. The Stampeders were so broke in 1985 they announced they didn't have enough money to buy stamps. Brother, can you spare a chin strap?

Some of the players—Tex Schramm will grow hair when he hears this—are taking 10% pay cuts this season. The average salary of a player in the CFL is only $60,332. Compared with most professional athletes, that's not much. The other day somebody asked one of the players if the CFL had a drug problem. "How can there be a drug problem in this league?" said the player. "We can't make enough money to buy drugs."

In Regina, Saskatchewan, home of the publicly owned Roughriders (one word as opposed to Ottawa's two) the team had to hold a telethon to pay last season's debt of $750,000—so it could get on with this year's debt. This year the Roughriders held a lottery, and it was more successful than the telethon, possibly because first prize was a house. Regina has fewer than 170,000 people and the tickets were $100 a piece, but the team sold 13,000.

In Winnipeg the Blue Bombers are holding concerts before games—Canada's Burton Cummings and the Miami Sound Machine—to put fannies in seats. The CFL is thinking about asking Bryan Adams to play benefits next year to keep the league in the saddle. You have to wonder how long this can go on. Sooner or later people are going to notice that somebody keeps trying to sneak a football game into their rock concerts.

According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, Ballard's auditor lists the value of the Hamilton franchise as zero. Ballard, who also owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens, bought the team as a hobby. He is 84 and diabetic. No new eccentric millionaires are waiting to take over. Even the strongest club in the league, the British Columbia Lions, is limping. Attendance is down 10,000 people per game this season. Almost everybody figures if one more team goes, the whole caboodle goes.

It took a lot of doing for the CFL to descend from something the American networks thought was good enough to placate NFL fanatics in 1982 to something even Canadians have a hard time watching. The CFL has marketed itself disastrously, misunderstood the economics of television, failed to grasp the concept of fan fragmentation in the age of the cable sports explosion, underestimated the appeal of the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos, scheduled as though drunk, tried to battle buck-for-buck with the USFL and lost, and forgotten a critical axiom applicable to all sports leagues: The whole is greater (much) than the sum of the parts.

But the grandest mistake of all may have come the day the CFL let Vancouver real estate tycoon Nelson Skalbania buy a franchise, the Montreal Alouettes. If the CFL dies, carve July 4, 1981 on its tombstone—the day Skalbania unveiled his Alouette menagerie of high-priced American stars, including quarterback Vince Ferragamo and wide receiver Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, and got his stripes stripped by the B.C. Lions 48-8. Skalbania was not only an outsider but a dumb outsider to boot. By the following year the players were gone, Skalbania was gone, and the fans were gone, even though the next owner, Charles Bronfman, lost $17 million over five seasons trying to get them back.

Worse, with the fall of Montreal, fans began noticing the league was staggering, and fans don't much like growing attached to a corpse. "We've got this deathwatch hanging over us all the time," says Bill Baker, the Saskatchewan general manager. "People are saying, 'Hey, this is serious. If one brother can die, the others can, too.' " Brother Calgary very nearly left us. On Nov. 6, 1985, the club announced that it would fold in six weeks. But thanks to a massive SOS campaign (Save Our Stampeders) led by the local media, the club survived. Now things are tough again. Ticket sales are drooping, and the city has refused the Stampeders free stadium use after this season, leaving them to hold a (can you guess?) lottery. So far they have raised about $200,000.

To be fair, the CFL isn't to blame for all its problems. Oil prices are down, so Canada's economy has slowed. The beer companies, which heretofore were great supporters of sports, have been in a slump. The NHL expanded into four CFL cities (Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver). Finally, attendance suffers when the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos have good years at the gate, as both did this season.

Then again, a whole lot of the CFL's ills can be chalked up to boneheaded management. New CFL commissioner Doug Mitchell is trying to show the owners the light, but the league is not exactly a quick study. A few for instances:

1) Toronto, far and away the money, population and power capital of the country, has two football teams, Toronto and Hamilton, the latter being about 45 minutes southwest of the former. Yet because of the CFL's stone-age TV policy, until this year both teams' games had been blacked out within a 75-mile radius even when only one of them was playing at home. Hence the only time a Toronto kid could watch his local heroes play was when both teams were on the road. Last year that happened on only two of 20 regular-season weekends. It's like a kid in New York only getting to see the Jets or Giants when they're both on the road. Mitchell persuaded the CFL to experiment with lifting the blackouts in the Toronto area this season, but the league agreed to do so for only four games.

2) Until a couple of seasons ago a fan in, say, Vancouver could not buy a hat that said OTTAWA ROUGH RIDERS on it. Fifteen years after the NFL thought of it, the league headquarters has taken over logo rights.

3) Mitchell decreed in 1985 that each team had to hire a marketing expert. What a concept.

4) From 1984 to 1986 Carling O'Keefe, the brewery, held the TV rights to the CFL. That, however, does not mean that Carling had the promotional rights to individual teams. They were usually held by another beer company, which meant that if Carling wanted to go into, say, Calgary to bang the drum for a big clash, it couldn't. Only Labatts could. And why would Labatts want to hype a game that would show only Carling ads? Labatts had the rights to stadium advertising, but Carling's contract with the league stipulated that no sign for another brewery could pop up on the screen.

5) The CFL's schedule has been a good bit of the problem. Teams go to training camp during the best part of the hockey season. They play their first league game in late June, which is the meat of the short Canadian summer, when most people would rather do anything than watch football on TV. The jockeying for playoff spots begins in mid-October, which is World Series time. And the playoffs and Grey Cup fall when the NFL races are heating up. No wonder that next year the league will start its season a month later.

6) You can't tell the players without a scorecard—except of course in the CFL, where you can't tell the players even with a scorecard. Because teams are desperate to win and because they must keep at least 19 nonimports, which means no more than 15 imports (almost always Americans), on their 34-man rosters, turnover is outrageous. Ottawa has had 48 quarterbacks since 1980. Fifty-two different guys started for Toronto last year.

"The people who make money out of the CFL are the airlines," says John Hudson, a vice-president of Labatts. "They run a shuttle business like you cannot believe.... In baseball the rosters are pretty much frozen after April 1. The guys you see then are the guys you'll see all year. The CFL better freeze the roster or it'll never have identity between the players and fans."

And without player identity, fans get bored. "When so many players come and go," says former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, "you lose a sense of connection with the team. You have a sense that your team is nothing more than a way station in the whole thing, just as a minor league team is a way station for players going up and down. You know you're never going to see anybody for very long. And that makes a fan feel really unimportant."

Perhaps nothing has hurt the CFL more than the growing perception that it's minor league. Canada is even more saturated with TV sports than the U.S. Canadians have access not only to what their country offers on two national networks and various cable outlets but also to much of what's available in the Lower 48. For instance, this Sunday in Montreal you can see three U.S. network games plus the ESPN game, not to mention the Winnipeg-Toronto CFL game. Then there is Canada's version of ESPN—called TSN—which by year's end will have offered 40 NHL games, 40 Blue Jays games, 40 Expos games and 40 NBA games. Throw in the regular Blue Jays and Expos broadcasts and all the U.S. baseball and basketball and you have a very sophisticated, very persnickety Canadian fan.

"People in Canada want the best," says Earl McRae, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. "And they know what's the best. The CFL is not the best. They watch the Blue Jays, they know they're seeing the best baseball in the world. They watch the Canadiens, they know they're seeing the best hockey league in the world. But they know what the best football league is, and it's not the CFL. The CFL is crap, and they're not willing to spend their money on crap. We don't have the talent here."

The CFL can't afford the talent. When the USFL started plucking players out of Canada, the league panicked and bumped up salaries more than it should have. "Our salaries went up, and they're still up," says Ralph Sazio, president of the Toronto Argonauts. "It was a mistake. We should have stayed cool."

It was about then, in 1984, that the league began searching for the 1980s. It hired Mitchell, a high-priced, high-tech Calgary lawyer who took a pay cut to take the job. According to the Citizen, Mitchell makes $275,000 a year and received a $200,000 interest-free loan last fall. Mitchell has never confirmed those figures. The point is, he's earning a lot more than the previous commissioner, Jake Gaudaur, who, after 16 years in the job, was reportedly pulling down $100,000 when he retired.

Mitchell's salary is a sore point. "That's a lot of money for a league this size," says Baker. It rankles others that Mitchell hasn't taken a pay cut like some players have. "Not at this stage," he says.

Give Mitchell credit on one count—he's trying everything. Take TV. The league's fat TV contract with Carling expired last year. After paying $11 million a season for three years, Carling made it clear that it wasn't going to pony up that kind of money again. Ditto all other potential sponsors. Mitchell just didn't know how little the pony was going to be. It was unridable. So what did Mitchell do? He started his own network, with his own broadcasters, his own ad department selling time and his own marketing department plugging the league the way it needs to be plugged.

It was a creative, insane move, because the clubs need TV money the way Wall Street needs Valium. Unfortunately, when you start your own network, your first year's profits might get you a six-pack of Moosehead. Mitchell says each team will make $450,000 a year "at best," but the marketing bosses at the breweries think he's wildly optimistic. "I don't see how they could make any money this year," says Hudson. So far the clubs haven't seen a dime. It comes down to this: If the CFL can survive until next season, Mitchell's network might save the league. If it can't, it may have killed it.

"Give every team another $600,000 to $900,000 and our problems are solved," says Baker. In fact, the league has advanced the Rough Riders and the Roughriders $200,000 apiece to finish the season. The league is chewing over a variety of suggestions, including going to four downs, allowing teams an unlimited number of American players and expanding into the U.S. in hopes that cash infusions by the new teams would save the league. Going from 12 to 11 men per side and shrinking the field 34.4%, to U.S. size, would seem to be logical—and relatively painless—ways to cut costs. But the league likes the fact that the extra man and larger field make for a more wide-open game than the NFL's.

One way or the other, though, changes are definitely a comin' to the good old CFL—or there won't be a good old CFL to change.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN D. HANLONWhen Saskatchewan played Hamilton, fans, feathered and otherwise, had lots of room. PHOTOJOHN IACONOIn better days Vince Ferragamo (1981) and George Allen (1982) were CFL attractions. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN[See caption above.] PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERJoe Theismann was a CFLer, too. PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONMitchell is hoping to bring the CFL into the '80s with new TV and promotional schemes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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