WILL THE CANADIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE SURVIVE?
With players like Joe Theismann (good enough for the NFL), owners like John Bassett (shrewd enough for the NFL) and those secret goal posts at CNE stadium (just right for the NFL), it isn't very likely
Ken Twigg is a conscientious man. He cares about his work. Especially he cares about the Tartan Turf he had installed at the Canadian National Exhibition stadium, the place where the Toronto Argonauts play their home games, the place that Ken Twigg managed at the time. The turf cost $500,000. It’s sleek and tough and fast, the last word in artificial grass, and one crucial day last May when Twigg was touring the CNE field, checking the turf one last time before it was laid irrevocably in place, he began to tick off in his head the attractions the stadium would accommodate. Had he allowed for every possibility? Yes, the footings were set in the ground for the football goalposts, 110 yards apart. Right, the standards were planted to hold the flags marking the soccer zones. Okay for track and field. Ditto for outdoor circuses. Everything set for . . .
Ken Twigg had left out one sport. The point is, you see, that all the foundation work, the placing of the footings and so on, had to be completed before the Tartan Turf was laid; the cost of removing the turf for a later installation would be out of sight. That’s what Twigg was thinking as the words went through his head: American football. Specifically, the National Football League. But no sweat. He ordered his groundsmen into instant action, and in no time at all they planted the footings for a set of NFL goalposts, 100 yards apart. Then the turf rolled down. A conscientious task completed, Ken Twigg quit his job to seek new fields to conquer.
Not many people know about those NFL footings hidden underneath the CNE’s Tartan Turf because Twigg, normally an open, garrulous man, left out any mention of the American goalposts in his otherwise detailed press release.
“Well, you know how people start talking,” Twigg explained one afternoon early this summer. “I didn’t want to get a lot of conjecture going that Argos were moving into American football.”
Then why install the U.S. footings at all?
“Just being prepared for anything. Nobody from the Argo organization told me to put them in. But I figured Argos might want to play some games against American teams under American rules. Or there’s talk from time to time that they might move to Varsity Stadium if they don’t fipd the facilities at our place satisfactory. Well, we’d have to consider what we’d bring in to replace them. The NFL goalposts are an . . . anticipation.”
John Bassett has a vision. Which is unusual. Usually he has a product. He owns things. For instance, he owns CFTO, a To-
ronto television station; the Toronto Argos, a team in the Canadian Football League; part of CKLW, a Windsor, Ontario, radio station; a generous slice of the Montreal Canadiens, a hockey team; CFQC, a television station in Saskatoon. And so on. But this time around, he has a vision, a dream or maybe a plan — a way he could bring a National Football League franchise to Toronto and make it pay and make his Argos, which, according to this vision, he’d keep alive in the CFL, pay too.
It takes plenty of conversation for Bassett to translate the vision to words. He doesn’t mind. He’s a natural performer, and he doesn’t so much talk as declaim. He rises from behind his desk, looming — he’s about six-foot-five — and he lunges back and forth over the light grçen carpet in his downtown Toronto office, which is only slightly smaller than the Tartan Turf at CNE stadium. He isn’t notably resourceful with language, and every few sentences he lingers silently over a thought and stares at the photographs on his walls and shelves (note the one, prominently situated, of his late friend Bobby Kennedy) until he cranks up again. He tends to drift into side paths (“the politicians running this city are full of bull —and you can quote me”). But he never lets up in the performance. He’s having a swell time.
The point at which Bassett’s scheme starts is with his conviction that the owners of the NFL teams are, like Toronto’s politicians, full of you-know-what. “They’ve proved themselves to be not very smart in many business decisions,” he says. And he thinks that he, John Bassett, can therefore head them off at the pass in one area of revenue that is essential to turn an NFL team in Toronto into a profitable proposition, namely in television rights.
“As matters stand right now,” Bassett says, tall, fit, splendidly groomed and, right before your eyes, winding into a scene scripted for, say, Lee J. Cobb, “the NFL teams don’t see a cent of money from the games that the CBC televises from the National League on Sunday afternoons. The CBC brings in the games via CBS in the States — jt’s something called ‘network extension’ — and the only money involved is a share of advertising revenue that CBS collects. All the NFL owners divvy up the revenue from the games televised in their own country, over a million bucks each, but they don’t touch Canadian money.
“All right, keeping that in mind, I get my Nf^L franchise, and I say to the NFL teams, don’t cut me in on your American TV revenues. Keep your millions to yourself. I say to them, just give me the TV rights for Canada. And they would give them to me because they aren’t collecting anything anyway, d’ya see? So I’m exclusive in Canada, and I sell the TV rights
continued on page 85
CFL from page 36
for $1.5 million. Right away I’m in business.”
That’s part one of the scheme. Part two has to do with taxes.
“Simple, I buy my NFL franchise for $ 11 or $ 12 million, whatever it is they’re asking these days, and then I use the same precedent that the government made in the case of the Montreal Expos baseball club. They let the Expos claim the original players that were on the first team as a depreciable asset for tax purposes. You realize what that means? That means they could write off 90% of their investment at the start. I do the same with my new NFL team, and I’m still in business.”
Part three: marketing the product.
“Look, the Argos start playing their league games in the middle of July and the season’s over by the third week or so of November. The NFL teams go from mid-September to January. It’s like two different seasons, and it only adds up to — what? — 20 home games a year. Harold Ballard down at Maple Leaf Gardens sells out 38 NHL games a year, and if I can’t sell tickets to 20 football games then I’ll take your hat and eat it at high noon in front of city hall. I’d tell subscribers that they can’t have an NFL ticket unless they take an Argo ticket. I’d own both teams and I could take money out of one pocket and put it in the other. I’d keep both teams going. I’d merchandise them like a Dominion Store special.”
Ingenious indeed. But — wait, wait — here’s the kicker: John Bassett doesn’t necessarily want to pursue his vision. In fact, he says, the scheme is a last-ditch.
desperation kind of measure, something. he insists, that he’s holding in reserve.
“I love Canadian football,” he says, pulling out all the performing stops. “Eve loved it since I was eight years old. It’s a hell of a goddamned sight better game than American football. I don’t want the NFL in Canada. But” — here, Bassett bends from the waist, long arm and straight finger leveling his listener between the eyes, and his voice drops to a whisper — “I’m terrified of Montreal. I am sick to my heart about Montreal. If Montreal gets an NFL franchise, then the Alouettes will collapse because Montreal is not a good football market, not good enough for two teams or maybe even for one. The Alouettes would go, and when they went the CFL would follow them into collapse. I tell you. I’m terrified of Montreal.”
John Bassett hitches himself up, voice steady now and matter-of-fact: “I’d be happy if there was no NFL invasion of Canada. But I can’t just sit back. I’ve got to be prepared.”
What is going on with football in Montreal anyway? The picture is, putting it mildly, murky. But there are, nonetheless, three clear factors to consider.
One. By 1976, Montreal will have, maybe courtesy of federal funds, an Olympic Stadium capable of seating more than 50,000, which is the minimum figure the National Football League permits among its member clubs — and potential member clubs.
Two. Mayor Jean Drapeau and his continued on page 86
administrative sidekick. Gerry Snyder, have a superb track record in luring attractions, sporting and otherwise, to their city: the Montreal Expos baseball team, the Olympics, Expo 67. As John Bassett says, “If anyone can con the NFL, it’s Drapeau.”
Three. Sam Berger, the owner of the Alouettes, is losing money, $500,000 in two years, and might care to cast around for a change in fortunes.
Sam Berger is a dignified, aging (72), patrician gentleman who made a great deal of money practising law in Ottawa and who bought the Alouettes before the 1970 season for $ 1.2 million. He may regret the purchase. In the waiting room of his office up on the seventh floor of a fading and ancient building at the corner of Drummond and St. Catherine Streets in Montreal, the only football picture on the walls is of an earlier Berger team, the Ottawa Roughriders of’69, Grey Cup champs. And inside his office, immaculate in dark-blue pinstripe suit, pulling on a long thin cigar, Berger lets you know that, shrug, shrug, things could be better.
“It’s true that we’ve had unpleasant financial times these last two years,” he says, cool and low key. “The Autostade. I’m afraid, is an impossible place for football, and we’ve moved to the Molson Stadium for our games. But we’re
obligated to pay rent at the Autostade through to 1975 as well as at Molson. That’s an expense. And our attendance wasn’t the very best in 1971. All I say is that, hopefully, we’ll have a competitive team in Montreal and that it will begin to fill the stadium.”
Ah ha, the Alouettes are in trouble. Berger can’t possibly stand pat. He must look outside the Canadian league.
“The CFL is a pretty viable thing, you know,” he says, still cool and low key. “It’s getting along pretty well.”
But, well, possibly the Canadian game will not remain viable in Montreal.
“What may develop in the next few years as to the direction Montreal, or for that matter Toronto, might take is another matter.”
Mr. Berger, flat out, would you like to bring the NFL to Montreal?
“I’d like football here to be forever a Canadian game,” he says, heating up just a touch. “But if something comes up of a different nature in Montreal, then I’m going to take steps to protect myself.”
Jean Drapeau, it appears, isn’t so exclusively enchanted as Sam Berger is with the notion that the CFL is an essential Canadian institution. He has other fish to fry, such as promoting his dream of making Montreal “the city of the world.” Would he, though, actually at-
tempt to rustle up an NFL franchise for Montreal’s new, as of 1976, stadium? On a question so specific, Drapeau is playing it cute.
Sam Berger: “I asked the mayor that very question. He told me that he was looking forward to the time when the Alouettes would be tenants of the stadium.”
Jake Gaudaur, commissioner of the CFL: “I saw the mayor last May, and he felt that, as regards football — CFL or NFL? — he had no alternative but to keep his options open.”
Mayor Drapeau himself, speaking, abruptly, early this summer: “What I do in regards to football or anything else will be what is best for this great city of ours.”
Gerry Snyder, who went from his sporting goods dealership in the middleclass and Jewish Montreal district of Snowden to a job as vice-chairman of the city’s executive committee, sheds slightly more light on Montreal’s football ambitions: “I’m more concerned with the Olympics at the moment, you must understand, but I happen to know that there are financial interests in Montreal who are prepared to make overtures and what-have-you to secure a National League franchise for Olympic Stadium. It isn’t out of the question that continued on page 88
we would have a team at play in 1977, not at all.”
Snyder adds: “I think Canadian football is a wonderful game.”
Pete Rozelle speaking from New York City, Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the National Football League, a dark, good-looking, self-possessed man, swift and deadly on matters of administration and public relations, guarded though pleasant in talking about speculative league business: “We’re not putting expansion of the National League at the top of league priorities at the present time. We went from 12 teams to 26 during the 1960s, and we’re concerned with consolidating that growth. But I will say that it is not unrealistic to think that we might ultimately go to 32 during the decade of the 1970s. There’s interest in Honolulu to come into our league and in Mexico City. Seattle, Tampa and Phoenix are interested. As for Montreal and Toronto, I wouldn’t say they are top candidates. The weather is a concern up there later in the season and, of course, Canada has its own very distinctive game. It would have to be a situation in Canada where we would feel wanted by everyone.”
“Yes, Mr. Rozelle said the same things to me about expansion last winter at the Super Bowl game,” Jake Gaudaur, the CFL commissioner, was saying. “He said that his league was not anticipating expansion anywhere in the
foreseeable future and he defined ‘foreseeable future’ as meaning that it would be five years before they even started to discuss expansion. I don’t want to sound like Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich, but I came home from meeting Rozelle convinced that the NFL wouldn’t be moving up here. Of course, any situation could change in a hurry.”
Jake Gaudaur is without much challenge the best-informed and wisest football administrator Canada has so far come up with. His roots run deep in the game (so do his family roots in the country — back to the 18th century). He was a tough, head-popping lineman with Toronto and Hamilton teams, president and then general manager of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a longtime CFL officer and, for the past four years, commissioner of the league. His contacts with the NFL reach back to a 1954 meeting with Bert Bell, Rozelle’s predecessor as commissioner and a man whom Gaudaur calls his “father-confessor in sport and in life.” At that meeting and again at 1960 and 1968 meetings with Rozelle, Gaudaur acted on behalf of the CFL in drawing up an NFL-CFL modus vivendi. The three memoranda from those meetings deal mainly with the signing of players, each league pledging recognition of the other’s player contracts. Significantly, the only mention in the memoranda of NFL expansion into Canada came in a brief sentence in the 1960 memo to the
effect that no National League owner, except George Marshall of Washington (since deceased), expressed any interest in moving the league north of the U.S. border. But those three memos, Gaudaur agrees, are hardly the last word in relations between the two leagues.
Personally Gaudaur appears to be a man entirely without guile. He’s a friendly and frank conversationalist, an agreeable, civilized fellow. For all his lineman’s solid size, he has a kind of delicacy about him. His movements, sitting there in the big swivel chair in the suite of offices in downtown Toronto from which the CFL is governed, are almost gingerly, and when he talks he shows a fussy precision in his choice of words.
“There is one way in which our league is essential to the NFL,” Gaudaur points out. “That’s in an antitrust situation. If the National League is taken to court as a monopoly, they can point to us and say, well, look, there’s a league up in Canada and it’s an alternative to any boy coming out of college who wants to play football. Our existence as a clear and visible alternative acts as a line of defense for them and therefore for us.”
If Gaudaur, a realist, still sounds a little like a man whistling past a graveyard, it’s because, as he doesn’t mind granting, the CFL has built-in fragility.
“Regina, just to take it as an example of the situation, can’t afford to be in our league,” he says. “It draws on about 200,000 people for its support. How can it expect to keep up with Toronto and its four million? The answer is that it can’t, and the answer to that is that the CFL has stayed alive only through the willingness of its owners to keep it alive. We get around the obvious regional economic disparity with devices like our equalization payments by which the richer clubs pay into a fund to support the poorer clubs. Vancouver keeps Regina above water. Toronto does the same for Hamilton. Now what would happen if the NFL came along and moved into one big CFL city? It would eliminate a major market for us, ruin the equalization payments, and kill the present CFL.”
Gaudaur obviously looks with mixed feelings on the CFL’s reluctance last winter to take a step that might have shored up the league’s financial position.
“As every fan knows, a man named Robert Schmertz applied for a CFL franchise in New York City,” Gaudaur explains. “He would have made a very attractive partner. He’s personally worth about $60 million, and for the 15 American players his team would be allowed he was prepared to go out and spend the money to get himself 15 Joe Namaths. Of course, that might have been a reacontinued on page 90
son why the CFL owners chose not to give him a franchise — 15 Joe Namaths would have overwhelmed the poorer teams in the league.”
But, Gaudaur makes clear, Robert Schmertz and his millions represented salvation in other ways: “Schmertz had Yankee Stadium locked up, and it’s the last available playing spot in New York. Schmertz’s presence there would have headed off the possibility of a third league getting started. You have to keep in mind that a third league could very well come about — there’s enough wealthy men around who’d like to try. But they’d have to have a New York team to begin operations and they’d have to have Yankee Stadium. Schmertz would have removed that possibility, and the fact is that a third league would be a real threat to the CFL because, unlike the NFL, it wouldn’t have to concern itself about antitrust considerations. It could walk right into Canadian cities. But turning down Schmertz doesn’t mean the CFL has walked away from expansion into the U.S. We have a committee looking into it. After all, it’s better to be alive in some form than to be dead.”
To any close observer of the Canadian pro football scene, something seems out of whack. Everybody, on the inside and on the outside, gazes upon the game’s organization (the CFL) and on its brightest ornament (the Grey Cup game) with much noisy pride and affection. Donald McNaughton, who, as president of Schenley’s, the company that hands out the annual awards to the CFL’s top players, is a kind of outside insider, puts the pride and affection this way: “Look, the NHL is gone as a purely national Canadian activity. Football is all that’s left, the one thing that gets us thinking east-to-west in this country instead of north-to-south. When I travel across Canada during Grey Cup week, that thinking hits a terrific peak. It keeps us conscious of being Canadians.” Sam Berger, who is, of course, as inside as you can get, agrees — “The Grey Cup and the league are national institutions that make us conscious of staying a nation” — and his fellow owners and workers and insiders join with him in a chorus of happy approval.
But at the same time the chorus, looking over their shoulders, glancing in the direction of NFL headquarters, have other, sotto voce remarks to drop. Ken Twigg, the man at the CNE stadium, mumbles something about “anticipation” and plants those National League post fittings. Jean Drapeau mouths the familiar homilies to the Canadian game but is still “keeping my options open.” John Bassett, who loves Canadian football, nevertheless has “got to be prepared.” For what? For the same
thing apparently that Sam Berger might have to “take steps to protect myself’ against. None of these powerful men, you begin to recognize, is about to import the NFL or dismantle the CFL — heaven forbid — but each has the notion that someone else, known or unknown, just might, in Bassett’s phrase, “start something.”
This hectically ambivalent attitude happens to coincide with the CFL’s most prosperous flowering. In 1971, the nine league stadiums operated at 96% capacity (to 95.2% for NFL parks), and the total attendance was 1,625,541, up 40,445 from the previous season, though, admittedly, most of the increase, 35,592 of it, came in Winnipeg where the spectacular play of quarterback Don Jonas revived a faltering franchise. For 1972, with the season ticket sales up in almost every city, the league is collecting $1,145,000 from CTV for television rights, plus an extra $100,000 from an outfit called Raimar Sports Productions Inc. for the privilege of televising 20 Wednesday night CFL games to more than 100 American stations representing some 75% of the U.S. TV audience. Things have never looked so financially rosy for the CFL.
At the same time, the style and authority of the Canadian game on the field have never climbed so high. “Right now,” says Dick Aldridge, an eight-year Canadian linebacker with the Toronto Argos, “the calibre of the ball we play isn’t much off NFL ball.” Aldridge, one of the league’s outspoken nationalists (“If we lose the CFL, it’d be like losing a railroad that links the country together”), concedes that it’s the presence of superior Americans that has pushed the playing level close to National League standards (declaring at the same time, with considerable justification, that “if the owners had enough money to afford more Americans, they’d bring them in — it’s economics, not patriotism, that holds down the import quota”).
Aldridge is, of course, exactly right on the value of the American players, and his own team’s recruiting, wheeling, dealing and spending of huge sums of money stands as the glossiest example of the CFL’s upward mobility. In slightly over two years, the Argos have stolen away from the NFL a San Francisco 49er first draft choice (Tim Anderson), a St. Louis Cardinal second choice (Jim Corrigall), a Miami fourth (Joe Theismann), a Baltimore fourth (Eric Allen) and a Green Bay fifth (Jim Stillwagon), paying unprecedentedly high sums for each of them ($120.000 for quarterback Theismann over two years, $350,000 over four years for another quarterback, Greg Barton).
But it isn’t this sort of Americanization of the Canadian game that worries Jake Gaudaur, not the 15 U.S. im-
continued on page 93
ports per team, nor the nine American head coaches, nor the seven American general managers. “I think that in the CFL we’re close to having our cake and eating it too,” Gaudaur says. “The U.S. players and coaches have made it possible for Canadian boys to develop into much better ball players than they would have on their own. There wouldn’t have been a Russ Jackson without the Americans. But at the same time the league is entirely owned by Canadians. It’s Canadians who control the legislation of the games. That’s what I call the best of both worlds.”
Where the Americanization worry does come in is with the chance that owners like Berger and Bassett, in love with Canadian ball though they are, might somehow slide into the NFL, in the process tumbling the CFL. It’s hardly a fantasy, given the present nervousness of Berger, Bassett and others in the CFL boardrooms, to foresee other wealthy Canadians, football buffs who don’t now have an owner’s share of the action, pressuring a rush to the National League. Bassett, for one, can see that threat. “Give me 48 hours on the phone,” he says, “and I could find 10 men who’d put up a million each for an NFL franchise in this country. These guys are itching to get into football.” W. Ross Reucassel goes along with Bassett’s assessment. In fact, he’d like into the NFL himself. Reucassel is a fast-talking, young (35), well-to-do Toronto businessman (he’s in waxes), and three years ago he and a couple of associates made a pitch for a National League team in Toronto.
“I had meetings with Wellington Mara, the New York Giants owner,” he says, “and I got together for long talks with Jim Trimble, who acts as a sort of liaison man between Rozelle and Gaudaur, and it came out that at that time the NFL didn’t want to disturb the existing relationship with the CFL. I got the idea that the two leagues were marking time. But there’s no question Toronto’s ready for the NFL. Pro football’s the money game these days, and Toronto’s a city that wants the best. It’s gonna get it, and when the day comes I’d like to be right there involved in the action.”
It’s the Reucassels of Canada that threaten Jake Gaudaur’s football world. Can they be headed off? Does the CFL have a line of defense? Gaudaur feels that the present federal government “recognizes the importance of the CFL.” He has, at any rate, found sympathetic responses in Ottawa over the last couple of years to briefs he submitted to the Economic Council of Canada, the CRTC, the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs and the Task Force on Sports for Canadians in which he outlined various defenses for the CFL’s vulnerable flanks. But
whether the government would swing into a more tangible act of protection in a CFL crisis, whether it would move in a way analogous to its 1970 blocking of the Denison Mines sale to U.S. interests, Gaudaur can’t guess.
John Munro, the Minister of National Health and Welfare, might presumably make an educated guess. Munro speaks for Canadian sports in the cabinet, and, though the possible, projected collapse of the CFL doesn’t rank among his top priority headaches at the moment, he sat down earlier this summer to give the notion a spin or two. Munro is a short,
chunky man, struggling against an overweight problem and a smoker’s hack. He has a handsome head, a full, dramatic sweep of hair, and a manner that manages to combine conviviality and intelligence.
“We’ve thought about what we could do for the CFL in Ottawa,” Munro said. “I don’t know if we could get into legislation. I mean, look, we’re in the area of private business here. If free enterprise people want to spend their money to bring in an NFL franchise, and we say no, there would be international implicontinued on page 94
cations. We’d be going counter to a history of pretty much free movement commercially and culturally between Canada and the U.S. There are, however, newer techniques that a government might use. I’m just conjecturing now, but we could bring in a discriminatory tax policy. We could make an NFL franchise in Canada a financially trying matter, shall we say. I’d say this, though, to the CFL, that if it wants to hold itself out as a Canadian institution then it had better get more Canadian. If it’s thinking of expanding, it should expand to Flalifax, say, instead of to New York City. And it should get the French element of the country more involved in football than it is now, if that is possible. Then if the CFL is in danger of American take-over and if there’s a strong reaction of positive nationalism, not just the criticizing kind, then the federal government would have good grounds for acting.”
When Jake Gaudaur moves around the country, speaking to banquets, businessmen’s luncheons and football gatherings, he almost always winds up his speeches with what he thinks of as a guaranteed shock ending. He apologizes mildly for his remarks, calling them “maybe a bit corny,” and pointing out that he isn’t “a really hard-line nationalist.” Then he goes on to say something like this: “Our football league, if you think about it, is a very close reflection of Canada’s problem as a nation in holding on to its identity and its autonomy in the face of a stronger force to the south. Think of the CFL as Canada and think of the NFL as the United States. The analogy is just about perfect. And so what I wonder is this — if the CFL succumbed to the NFL. would Canada as a nation be long behind in falling to the United States?”
Well, yes, Commissioner Gaudaur, maybe that is an apt analogy, but it suggests, too, that Canada must be curiously and pitifully lacking in resources if the last line of defense between its independence and its collapse is a football league. And anyway, as far as the CFL is concerned, isn’t it just about too late? With all the information available to us right now in this football season of 1972, with our knowledge of owners’ attitudes, with the hints of ambition among some wealthy Canadians and some city-proud politicians to move up and along to the prestige of the National League, with the gentle but perceptible slipping toward American football, it’s easy enough to predict that somewhere in the CFL’s short future there are a couple of NFL teams. It’s happening in spite of ourselves — because, after all, everyone in Canada “loves” our own game — but it’s happening. You’ve been a good old league, CFL. but so long. ■