Sports

FOOTBALL STRIKES BACK

The Grey Cup lands in a city that loves a party, and is mad about the game

JAMES DEACON November 26 2001
Sports

FOOTBALL STRIKES BACK

The Grey Cup lands in a city that loves a party, and is mad about the game

JAMES DEACON November 26 2001

FOOTBALL STRIKES BACK

The Grey Cup lands in a city that loves a party, and is mad about the game

Sports

JAMES DEACON

It has become a tradition at the end of Canadian Football League seasons to check for injuries. Franchise collapses, jailed team owners, that sort of thing.

This year, though, the only truly ugly welt is in double-blue Toronto, where the Argos suffered heavy financial losses, leaving team owner Sherwood Schwarz to wonder if it would be cheaper to just walk away. The city’s so-called sports fans stayed away in droves even though Schwarz hired the sainted Pinball Clemons to coach from the sidelines and had the brilliant running back Michael Jenkins setting records on the field.

The team stank for the first half of the season, and Clemons made some rookie-coach mistakes. But even when the Argos started winning games, too-cool Torontonians couldn’t find enough snob appeal in a modest game that is inexpensive and fun to watch. Their loss.

And Montreal’s gain. No one in the CFL is going to feel any pain this week amid the reliably outrageous Grey Cup celebrations. There’ll be Calgarians on horseback, green-faced Saskatchewan fans, jam-packed Spirit of Edmonton parties and a first-ever $1-million Grey Cup “village,” at Place du Canada downtown, that will act as a massive civic hospitality suite. All in a city that is an excellent place to party at any time, and in a province where football has experienced a sweeping revival—organizers sold out the cavernous, 65,255-seat Olympic Stadium. Locals would have preferred to cheer on the home-town Alouettes, who began the year as prohibitive favourites to take part in the Grey Cup but fell out of contention after inexplicably losing their last eight games. Als fans will have plenty of opportunities to drown their sorrows, though. It

was during some long-ago Grey Cup week that someone decided beer goes well with pancake breakfasts. “It’s going to be fantastic, unlike anything we’ve ever done before,” Alouettes CEO and president Larry Smith says of the Cup party plans. “There’ll be people all over the place.” Montreal’s turnaround is still difficult to fathom. On the financial ropes four years ago when they last called the Big Owe home, the Als have sold out their last 28 games since moving to Molson Stadium, now sporting 19,601 seats. The explosion of interest coincides with a football boom all around Quebec. Kids programs in clubs and at schools are busting at the seams— Smith likes to tell the story of a high school in Mont-Joli, Que. (population 6,267) that recently raised more than $100,000 to build a field and start a team. Following the

success of Université Laval, which won the 1999 Vanier Cup for college supremacy only four years after the program was established, both the Université de Montréal and the Université de Sherbrooke are planning to add football programs. As a Quebecer, Smith says, the Cup festivities are a chance to “celebrate not only the success of our team, but the resurgence of interest in football in this province. It’s incredible.” CFL commissioner Mike Lysko would kill for a similar burst of enthusiasm in Toronto. But he also knows things could be a lot worse. Last season ended with concerns about yet another start-up football league (the unlamented and sinceexpired XFL) stealing away talent. It’s a sensitive subject around the CFL: in the footsteps of superstars Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia, quarterbacks Dave Dickenson from Calgary and Henry Burris from Saskatchewan were lured south last winter by the big-bucks National Football League.

The feared impact of lost marquee performers, however, didn’t occur. In fact, since Flutie’s last year in 1997, both TSN and CBC have enjoyed 72and 21per-cent increases, respectively, in TV ratings of their coverage of CFL games. And rising new talents such as quarterback Khari Jones in Winnipeg and scat-back Jenkins in Toronto stepped in to become stars. On the business side, the league boosted revenues by adding several major sponsors, and Lysko and the CFL governors restored a franchise in Ottawa, bringing to nine the number of teams that will kick off in 2002. To potential marketing partners, Lysko says: “We now have the position of being the only truly national sports league in Canada.” With that prognosis, the focus of Grey Cup week can turn from the league’s health to the game itself. That is, if fans can tear themselves away from the parties. EH3