STUFF CANADA HAS GIVEN THE U.S.: Gretzky, geese and Alan Thicke. And now the Sacramento Gold Miners, the first U.S. entry in the Canadian Football League. The thinking is, if Canada can play American League baseball, the U.S. can play Canadian League football.
The Gold Miners actually represent the vanguard of CFL expansion plans, which include the addition of at least three more U.S. teams by the opening of the 1994 season. For the moment it is surprising enough to realize that the Edmonton Eskimos will soon frolic in the 105° heat of the San Joaquin Valley.
In fact, it's surprising that the Gold Miners will be frolicking there. Over the years Sacramento has had a tough time with pro football, no matter what its nationality. In 1989 the city thought that it was about to become the new home of Al Davis's Raiders. Davis stayed in L.A. Two seasons ago Sacramento became a port of call in the new World League. The World League suspended play after the '92 season.
Sacramento fans, who used to turn out in pretty good numbers (18,500 a game in 1992) to watch the World League Surge entertain teams from Barcelona and San Antonio, aren't likely to balk at the prospect of watching teams from Ottawa and Saskatchewan. At least that's the hope of the CFL, for which expansion is a badly needed remedy. Several of its eight teams have been steadily losing money, and its fans have been steadily losing interest. More than the $3 million expansion fee that Sacramento has paid, the CFL wants additional exposure, sponsors and viewers. The Canadians hope that teams placed in mid-sized U.S. markets that don't compete with NFL markets will deliver all this.
Sacramento just wants some football. The suspension of the World League left Fred Anderson, a timber tycoon who owns the Surge franchise, with a marketing vacuum. He had the seats, personnel and sales momentum...but no team. Anderson was beginning to annoy the locals every time he reminded them that the grandstands he had installed at Cal State-Sacramento's Hornet Field were costing him $1,000 a day in rental fees. He even toyed with the idea of bringing a Triple A baseball team to town just to fill those empty seats. So when the CFL began accepting applications last year, Anderson was first in line.
But when he made his pitch to the CFL's expansion committee for one of the new franchises—two were originally planned for this season—he didn't speak about his economic woes, neglected to present the civic blather he had prepared and simply said he would like to have a CFL team "for the fun of it." The committee immediately agreed that he was just the sort of fellow it should tap for an entry fee.
The league also liked the fact that Anderson wouldn't have to start an organization from scratch. All he had to do—although he has not done it so far—was replace the big S that's stitched into the carpet at the old Surge headquarters in Rancho Murieta. By the way, the new team is named the Gold Miners for historical reasons, not because its abbreviated name sounds a bit like Niners, as some cynics have suggested. Besides the carpeting, Anderson has been able to retain most of his front office, a coach and a quarterback.
Kay Stephenson, a former NFL quarterback who coached the Buffalo Bills a decade ago, agreed to stay in Sacramento, although not before deliberating for some time. The nature of the CFL game—so much emphasis on kicking—clearly bothered him. But on Jan. 28, Stephenson agreed to take the job. He signed a few Surge holdovers, notably quarterback David Archer, and a handful of other former World League players, including defensive back Bobby Humphery, an NFL veteran who had most recently played for the San Antonio Riders.
Archer, who had led the Surge to a 10-2 record and the World Bowl last year, was also a reluctant returnee. He had had a good training camp last July with the Philadelphia Eagles and was rewarded with a backup spot on that team. But Archer, who in 1986 started 11 games for the Atlanta Falcons and then, he says, "was never given the ball again," decided he would rather play in the CFL than watch in the NFL. "Did I get into this game to play or sit on the bench?" he says. "I probably left some money on the table when I came here, but I get a chance to be the guy on the field."
Archer didn't leave all that much on the table. A CFL payroll is capped at about two million U.S. dollars, ensuring that a team will pay a lot of civilianlike $50,000 salaries. But every team is allowed one marquee player, somebody whose salary does not count against the cap. Archer is reported to be making $500,000.
Archer chose to learn this new game despite the fact that the CFL, with its wider (by 11⅖ yards) field and two-downs-and-punt tempo, is geared to a scrambler, which Archer is not. But that doesn't bother him. What does bother him, he says, is "the Vince Ferragamo syndrome." Everywhere he has gone in the league so far he has been reminded of Ferragamo, the quarterback who led the Los Angeles Rams to the 1980 Super Bowl, then went north to the Montreal Alouettes for a reported $2 million and gloriously self-destructed. Sure enough, in a press conference to hype the Miners' June 26 exhibition game in Sacramento against the British Columbia Lions, Archer was asked by a Canadian reporter if he would be able to avoid Ferragamo's fate. He was polite but firm when he assured the journalist that history would not repeat itself.
For many years the CFL has been known in the U.S. not for its 81-year tradition or its Grey Cup but for its so-called imports, its many former or soon-to-be NFL players. Some Americans have used the CFL to prep for the big show (Joe Theismann), some have used it to gain negotiating leverage with the NFL (Rocket Ismail), some have used it as a refuge (Doug Flutie), and some have, to the absolute glee of Canadian fans, used it to self-destruct (Ferragamo). Some Sacramento players, of course, have joined the CFL simply because they want to play football.
There is a ragtag aspect to the Miners. Last week The Sacramento Bee ran a story on lineman Mike Kiselak, who was busy juggling two-a-days with his thriving insurance business. One hardship he faced was that there were no phones in the Miners' dorm in Stockton, Calif., and he had to conduct his insurance business from phone booths on busy street corners. "I try to find the right spot, not too loud and not many cars," he said. Another new Miner is running back Charles Thompson, a convicted drug dealer who left big-time athletics at Oklahoma in handcuffs in 1989 but who has resurfaced here after rehabilitating himself at Central State (the school, not the prison).
What all the Miners have in common is that they're all U.S. citizens. That is, all of them are imports to the CFL. This is no small issue, in order to preserve the league's Canadian character and foster football in Canada, since 1936 the league has imposed a quota of 14 imports on each 37-player roster. The CFL would have liked to have had the same limit for American franchises, but that is contrary to U.S. law.
The fear is that an all-U.S. team, which draws from a much deeper pool of talent, will dominate its Canadian brethren. There are only 23 football-playing universities in Canada; there are more than that many in California alone. "This is a tremendous story in Canada," says Lion general manager Eric Tillman. "Many people feel that Sacramento has a tremendous advantage. If we lose two offensive linemen, they're hard to replace. Sacramento can just see who's available after the NFL cuts."
In addition there is the fact that college football is played at a lower level in Canada than it is in the U.S. "Players coming out of college in Canada," says Cal Murphy, the coach and general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, "are about equal to Division III talent in the U.S." Some Canadian players have developed into NFL-caliber stars, but it took them time to mature and learn—time they would not have enjoyed without the Canadian content rule.
But the CFL can no longer afford the luxury of continuing its long practice of protectionism. Edmonton sold only 19,000 season tickets last season; it had sold 52,000 season tickets as recently as 1982. "That was when the oil flowed," says Eskimo general manager Hugh Campbell. He blames the downturn on economic recession, but the league, with only eight teams in two divisions, grew dull and was gradually eclipsed by the impact of all those American sports sneaking over the border in person and on TV.
"As much as people want to see Toronto play Hamilton," says CFL commissioner Larry Smith, "there was a question as to whether they wanted to see them play four times a year."
Smith is a retail expert who was brought in from the food industry in February '92 to make the CFL more appetizing. Everybody in the league agrees that the Canadian game is exciting. "If you watch it three times," Campbell promises, "the NFL will never have the same excitement for you." But because of poor marketing, American sports on TV have supplanted the CFL in popularity. Smith is shaking things up. "We felt if we wanted to get into sponsors' faces, we'd have to be more North American than Canadian," he says. "We could also get into more TV markets, create more leverage. As it is, we're at the bottom of the spectrum in TV revenue."
At the same time, CFL officials recognize that the southward expansion will grate on many Canadians. "You have to understand," says Campbell—who is U.S.-born and played his college ball at Washington State from 1959-62, then played for six years with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders—"that our relationship with the U.S. is different than the U.S.'s is with us. The U.S. thinks we're a nifty neighbor. But Canada wants to be careful to protect what is Canadian."
Still the CFL vote was 7-1 (Winnipeg held out in favor of tradition) to move into the U.S. "We're not competing with the NFL," Smith is quick to point out. "They're a huge business. We're small business. But we can get involved in cities where we'd never be a threat to the NFL, where it would never expand into, but where the fans still want to watch pro football at a high level. We can be a niche player."
San Antonio was also accepted by the CFL for 1993, but it pulled out for financial reasons. Other cities being discussed for '94 are Portland, Ore., Las Vegas and Memphis—though Memphis is still in the running for an NFL franchise. No matter which U.S. cities get the call, says Anderson, it had better happen soon. "I didn't get into this to be the Lone Ranger," he says. Additional U.S. franchises, Anderson believes, can only enhance the value of his investment.
Even though Sacramento will have the league's smallest capacity (the CFL's longer field and end zones will pare the seating at Hornet Field from 29,500 to 22,500), the Miners have already given the league a jolt of energy. "The new blood, the new talk," says Campbell, is refreshing. Season-ticket sales have increased throughout the league for the first time since 1982. For a preseason game on June 25, Campbell's Eskimos drew a healthy 36,000 fans.
And given the attitude of many Canadians toward Americans, the Miners figure to be a marketing bonanza any time they come to a Canadian town. At a preseason game in Winnipeg that Bomber coach Murphy promised would be "us against the U.S.," nationalism was feverish. The Blue Bombers handed out 10,000 Canadian flags to the fans, who also waved a lot of American flags upside down. Predictably there was a brawl between the two teams.
So some balance of trade has been restored. Canadians give the U.S. a football team, Americans give Canadians a reason to watch CFL football.