As the champions of the eastern and western conferences of the Canadian Football League prepare this week for Sunday’s Grey Cup game in Montreal, much more is at stake than which team will win the 73rd Cup. Although accustomed to crisis, the CFL—once considered a national bond on the level of the railways —now faces the severest challenges of its scarred and storied history. In 1985
only two teams—the B.C. Lions and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers—made a profit, while the other seven lost a total of almost $7 million. With only three teams winning more games than they lost, overall attendance was down for the second consecutive year, by three per cent. But most critically, two teams—the Calgary Stampeders and Montreal Concordes—must either be refinanced, sold or folded. Said Ralph Sazio, president of the Toronto Argonauts: “Over the years we have always had the odd team in trouble but we seem to bail out. This is the most severe crisis in my 35 years in the league because now two teams are in trouble.” Indeed, Cup television viewers across the country and the spectators at Olympic Stadium may witness the last game of the CFL as it is currently
constituted. Last week in Calgary the Stampeders, after losing $1 million in 1985, announced a novel refinancing plan which seeks interest-free loans from the private sector by Dec. 15. Said Stampeder president Patrick Peacock: “Yes, it’s a short fuse. But we need to know quickly if it’s going to work.” This week in Montreal, Concordes chairman Edmond Ricard plans to meet with his partner, Seagram distill-
ing magnate Charles Bronfman, to decide if the group will continue to finance an enterprise that has lost $12 million since they resurrected the bankrupt franchise in 1982. Said Ricard: “We are well aware of the fact that if the franchise in Montreal were to disappear it would have a disastrous impact on the league. We were committed to three years, it has now been four. Whether or not we will go a fifth, I don’t know.”
The Stampeders averaged fewer than 15,000 fans per game this season compared to 31,500 in 1980. The team projects an operating loss of $1.65 million, its reserve fund is exhausted and the club will need $6 million to operate in 1986. Last week the team, which like the other western clubs is communityowned, asked local corporations for
$3.6 million in interest-free loans to purchase government bonds. The interest from the bonds would be used as collateral on a $2-million bank loan and a $l-million line of credit. If the interest-free loans are not raised by Dec. 15, the team’s directors will decide whether to attempt to sell the club or fold it. Said Peacock: “If the financial plan doesn’t work, we have to look at alternatives. The only one I
foresee at this stage is to see if anyone wants to buy the team.”
That may also be the final alternative in Montreal. The Concordes will lose $2 million this year on an operating budget of $5 million. Bronfman and partners Hugh Hallward, Lome Webster and Sidney Maislin, with Imasco Ltd. president Ricard as club chairman, created the Concordes from the rubble of the Alouettes in 1982. After 18 months under the ownership of Vancouver entrepreneur Nelson Skalbania the Alouettes were bankrupt with $1.5 million in debts. Bronfman and his partners made a three-year commitment, anticipating to lose $8.5 million in the the first two years and to break even in the third. In fact, the team lost $10 million. At the end of three years Bronfman’s partners com-
pleted their financial obligations and maintained a one-third share of the team. Imasco, through Ricard, assumed a one-third share of the team and, with Bronfman, half of the financial obligations. Ricard told Maclean’s last week, “The only difference between Skalbania’s ownership of the Alouettes and our partnership is that we have paid all our bills and we don’t owe anybody any money.” But the losses have been daunting. Said Ricard: “Frankly, it’s not that the partners cannot afford to sustain those losses, it’s just that you have to be able to justify your investments to shareholders. And we had intended to be in for three years only—it was not our intention to be in football forever.” Although a decision to hang on or to sell will not be made until this week, Ricard added, “Nobody has knocked on our door.”
While the Calgary and Montreal situations are critical, the conditions of the other franchises, although stable, are not healthy. The B.C. Lions, playing in the league’s only domed stadium, B.C. Place, finished first in the West during the regular season for the third year in a row and made a small profit. The defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers had another successful season on the field and at the gate. The team drew 275,763 fans to eight regular season and two exhibition games, 5,642 more than the previous club attendance record set in 1984. The Bombers have now reduced the club deficit to $480,000. Said Winnipeg general manager Paul Robson: “We are not in trouble.”
The red ink spilled on the only other league team with a winning record, the Edmonton Eskimos. In Edmonton total attendance of 410,000 was down 30,000 over last year. The team made only $33,000 last year and it will lose about $200,000 in 1985. In Regina the Saskatchewan Roughriders lost about $200,000 in 1984 and will exceed that this year. The team has not reached the western playoffs since 1976, and only about 12,000 spectators watched its final game of 1985. Said club president Keith Critchley: “We really have reached a crisis. Our fans have reached the point where they want to wait and see, and that is dangerous.”
An explosion at 29,230-seat Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton would have inflicted few casualties this season. Owner Harold Ballard’s TigerCats averaged only 14,500 spectators at home games on the way to a first-place season finish in the East with eight wins and eight losses. The team needs about 24,000 fans at each game to break even. Said Hamilton general manager Joe Zuger: “We have not averaged in the 20,000 range since 1981.
In each of the past few years we have lost between $500,000 and $1 million. This year we will lose over $1 million.” Said Zuger: “I guess the only thing you can do is win all your games. If they don’t come after that, maybe people just don’t want it.”
In Toronto an average crowd of about 30,000 watched Carling O’Keefe Ltd.’s 1983 Grey Cup champion Argonauts finish in last place in the East.
The team needs close to 34,000 fans for each game to break even. Since 1981 the Argonauts have been losing between $500,000 and $1 million each year. According to Sazio, the club has “no intentions whatsoever of discontinuing. We’re not panicking. You’re looking at a sport that’s been around for over 100 years. If this is not a heritage, if this is not what the people want, then, fine, we’ll have to face up to it.”
The situation is similar in Ottawa. Total attendance of 169,470 for Rough Rider home games this year was 54,525 fewer than the record number of spectators the team attracted in 1975. Said
Rough Rider marketing director Gordon Bunke: “What people would come out in droves for in the past just doesn’t seem to be enough.” Indeed, the Ottawa-Carleton Board of Trade organized a “Pack the Park Day” campaign for Ottawa’s Sept. 29 home game. The energetic effort, including a breakfast for 1,000 fans, attracted a season-high crowd of 24,909. But Lansdowne Park was far from packed. There were still 9,929 empty seats. For the next home game there were 16,338 unsold tickets.
At the helm of the troubled league —losses last year were about $6 million—is commissioner Douglas Mitchell, a 46-year-old former player and lawyer. Like his predecessors, Mitchell has read countless CFL obituaries. And like his predecessors, Mitchell has read them with amusement. The commissioner told Maclean’s last week, “If the media were running the league, we would have been out of business 100 years ago.” Mitchell noted that the CFL employs, either directly or indirectly, close to 6,000 Canadians and contributes about $150 million to the economy. Said Mitchell: “In the 1984 season we had two teams make money and seven lose money, but our total losses combined were less than the losses of many individual professional sports teams in baseball, hockey and basketball. For some reason people don’t know that we lose less as a league than some people lose as a team.” Mitchell also points out that although attendance dropped overall this season, “Saskatchewan was up 7,200 over 1984 until the last two games, when they were eliminated from playoffs and they lost that bulge. And overall, we would have been ahead of last year if it had not been for the Calgary situation.”
Acknowledging that the Calgary “situation” is critical, Mitchell declared: “I guarantee one thing. There will be a football team in Calgary next year, without a bit of a doubt.” And although telecasts of 17 CFL games this season attracted audiences of more than a million each, Mitchell concedes that the league needs a more competitive, entertaining product to win back its fans—and to survive. It is a sentiment that Concordes chairman Ricard shares: “Right now there are three good teams in the CFL—B.C., Edmonton and Winnipeg—and the rest of us are struggling like mad. Unless we find a way to improve the product it can’t go on for much longer.”
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