Points of light on a clouded horizon

Hal Quinn November 17 1980

Points of light on a clouded horizon

Hal Quinn November 17 1980

Points of light on a clouded horizon


Hal Quinn

The West-East problems of the Canadian Football League are a clear reflection of our nation's.—Jake Gaudaur, CFL commissioner

As the CFL’s semifinalists prepared for their games in Montreal and Winnipeg last week, ominous clouds gathered over what many Canadians consider a vital institution and many others consider a long-crippled vestige of the past not worth preserving. The growing shadows, reaching out over the few remaining weeks of the 1980 season and touching the preparations for the Grey Cup game Nov. 23, were seeded by the release of the league’s attendance figures (see box) and thunder from the mayor’s office in Montreal. Since 1948, when the Calgary Stampeders and their fans staged the first Grey Cup party, the CFL has struggled to justify its status as a major professional league competing for entertainment dollars with hockey, baseball and—more recently— soccer, and for the allegiance of potential fans who prefer football as played in the National Football League south of the border.

But there were rumblings from both sides of the border last week. The WestEast problem facing the league is reflected in the final standing. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats finished first in the Eastern Conference with a record of eight wins, seven losses and one tie. The B.C. Lions, who finished with an identical record, are lodged in fourth place in the Western Conference. Every team in the West except Saskatchewan had a better record than the semifinalists in

Rise and fall

Teams showing attendance increase

Saskatchewan Roughriders +26,776 Hamilton Tiger-Cats +16,020

Edmonton Eskimos +2,272

Calgary Stampeders +1,551

Teams showing attendance decline

Montreal Alouettes -97,311

B.C. Lions -36,933

Ottawa Rough Riders —18,200

Toronto Argonauts -17,505

Winnipeg Blue Bombers -1,888

League Total -125,218

the East, Montreal and Ottawa. But disparity is not chief among the problems, dwarfed by dropping attendance in the league’s major markets of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, and concern over the league’s image in general. And then there is Mayor Jean Drapeau.

Rumors that the National Football League is poised to expand into Canada and destroy the CFL are an annual event, the likely sites always the same—the major markets. Drapeau and the board that operates the Olympic Stadium in Montreal have started them again, and once again CFL Commissioner Jake Gaudaur has squelched them. “There are three very good reasons why it won’t happen,” Gaudaur said last week. “First of all, there are a number of U.S. cities that have been after NFL franchises for years and they

would have to be accommodated first. Secondly, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle has repeatedly said that the NFL would not come to Canada without the blessing of the Canadian government. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, if the NFL came to Canada it would destroy the CFL. That would put the NFL in a monopoly situation. With the CFL, U.S. college graduates have an alternative. Without it, the NFL would face antitrust action, and they don’t want that.” Also mitigating against an NFL franchise that would help to pay for the roof at Olympic Stadium is the close rapport between the players’ associations in the two leagues. They are powerful groups, and the players enjoy—and will do all they can to preserve—the bargaining lever of the other league. But Gaudaur’s faith in the Canadian government’s perpetual blessing may be inflated. When the Liberal government last stepped in, through the person of then health and welfare minister Marc Lalonde, to block John Bassett from bringing his World Football League Northmen to Toronto in 1974, it was not a one-way bargain. Privately, the CFL benefactors on Parliament Hill express their dissatisfaction with the league’s performance in areas that concern

them: expansion to cities like Halifax, N.S., and London, Ont.; promotion of the league to francophones in Quebec; and a better deal for young Canadians aspiring to pro careers.There has been, of course, no expansion; Quebeckers receive as many, if not more, French-language broadcasts of the NFL as they do the CFL; and the Jamie Bone incident (Bone, a Canadian quarterback, took the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the Ontario Human Rights Commission after he was not given a fair tryout and won his case) is a black mark not forgotten in Ottawa.

The NFL, via rumor, TV or a 2 Vi»-hour Sunday drive to Seattle for 900 Seahawks season ticket holders in Vancouver, is a powerful attraction—for fans and owners. As with every other subject, Harold Ballard, owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, has some strong opinions on the CFL, and as with most of his broadsides he is not entirely without support. “I know I’ll be criticized for this, but I don’t see why people should

be forced to watch Canadians play football. They’re just not in the same class as the players south of the border. I’d like to see the CFL open up. If a Canadian is good enough to make the team, fine. But how can you ask people to pay $12 to watch guys who they know aren’t the best.” They have asked in Montreal and the fans have refused; Torontonians have finally reacted by moderating their addiction to the mediocrity; and Vancouverites have refused to sit on damp wooden planks in an antiquated stadium.

It is a measure of the problems of the league that it lost $1 million last year (and will lose money again this year on projected gross revenues of $32 million) and that its most successful franchise on the field and at the gate, the Edmonton Eskimos, will lose between $140,000 and $150,000 this season. Every Edmonton game at Commonwealth Stadium is sold out but, as Eskimos marketing manager Dave Williams explains: “With escalating costs we would have to

increase ticket prices $1 every year. Most critically for us, Edmonton has been awarded the 1983 World Student Games. About 16,000 seats will be added, some hopefully by next season, and that should allow us to hold the line on ticket prices.”

There is also hope in the critical Vancouver market. When the Lions joined the league in 1954, they had the best stadium in the league, built for that year’s Empire Games. Now they have the worst, but by 1983 they could have the best again. The plans have not been released, but the site for a domed stadium-rink-office - restaurant - etc. complex “should be fenced off by January,” says Lions’ marketing manager Rodger Upton. The dome would seat 60,000 for football. “With the new stadium we can look forward to a lot more corporate support [block ticket sales] and season ticket holders. Already people are buying season tickets to reserve themselves spots in the new stadium,” says Upton, whose club is reportedly $1 million in debt. The Lions project a “substantial” loss this year, following a loss of less than $50,000 in 1979.

But there are other sources of hope. The Calgary team is doing well with oil money and a good team. Winnipeg has a strong club again, though their attendance dropped slightly this year, and fans in Hamilton have returned to Ivor Wynne Stadium to watch a winner. The main hope for the future, however, comes from television. The lifeblood of the NFL is its lucrative TV contract and, just as the CFL teams have finally made the first steps toward concerted marketing and public relations, the league has come of age regarding its TV negotiations. Forsaking cap-in-hand humility while awaiting tenders on games scattered through weekdays in fannumbing confusion, the league has finally adopted weekend, fully interlocking scheduling between East and West. As Gaudaur puts it, “We let the TV contract find its value in the marketplace.” The new posture resulted in the most lucrative contract in CFL history—$15.6 million over three years, up from $6.6 million for the last three-year contract.

Meanwhile, those who agree with Harold Ballard and feel the CFL is an anachronism could be warmed on the eve of the eastern semifinal by George O’Leary of the federal immigration department, who filed an official complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission saying the CFL’s limit on American-born or -trained players is discriminatory. His joins Jamie Bone’s complaint saying the league’s designated-import rule discriminates against Canadians who want to play quarterback in the CFL. As Grey Cup weekend approached, new clouds joined the old.