That empty feeling

DAN BURKE November 16 1987

That empty feeling

DAN BURKE November 16 1987

That empty feeling


The Winnipeg Blue Bombers held a concert featuring the rock group Miami Sound Machine. The Saskatchewan Roughriders staged professional wrestling matches at the 55-yard line and raised money from bake sales organized by players’ wives. Officials of the Edmonton Eskimos asked players to take a 10-per-cent pay cut—and matched it with salary cuts for executives. In fact, with revenues down in virtually every Canadian Football League city, the 75-year-old league faced a severe crisis. The urgency of the situation was underscored last week, as player representatives from the league’s eight teams met in an emergency session in Calgary. Said George Reed, president of the CFL Players’ Association: “The players are willing to take any steps that have to be taken to ensure the viability of the CFL.”

They have little alternative. Before the season even began, the Montreal Alouettes folded to avoid further financial setbacks. And virtually every remaining team, says Eskimo general

manager Hugh Campbell, will lose money this season. In addition to declining box office and television revenues, the league has been plagued by almost weekly controversies, including the general quality of the game, pay cuts for players and even the salary and benefits of CFL commissioner Doug Mitchell—$275,000 a year and a $200,000 interestfree loan. Said Toronto Argonaut general manager Leo Cahill: “We’ve got to find a way to capture people’s imagination again. People don’t want to be associated with something that looks like it’s in trouble.”

Trouble is an understatement. The sharpest declines are occurring in what were once the league’s most secure franchises, Edmonton and Vancouver. In Ottawa, the Rough Riders are averaging less than 20,000 fans per game; the

team needs almost 30,000 to break even. Observers say that a miracle will be necessary to save the franchise. In British Columbia, the Lions have asked the provincial government for a $2-million loan. In Hamilton, the defending Grey Cup champion TigerCats are drawing less than 17,000 per game—in a 29,195-seat stadium. Said CFL spokesman John Iaboni: “Our

number 1 concern is that every team enters 1988 with a workable operating budget. Until we get our house in order, everything else is irrelevant.”

Indeed, the league this year placed a $2.8million salary cap on player payrolls, which meant that the average salary was $60,000 for the 18-game regular season. It also required teams to give visiting clubs a 40-per-cent share of home box office receipts—for a more equitable spread of league income. Next year, owners will face even more restrictions, when a $3-million limit on what the league calls competition budgets—player salaries, training camp and scouting costs—takes effect. Said

Mitchell: “We are back to where the CFL should have been in terms of realistic budgeting.”

But the enforced frugality and profit sharing clearly fails to address the CFL’s fundamental malaise: declining interest.

Since 1983, when average attendance per game reached 30,473, fan support has dropped by almost 20 per cent.

Last year average attendance sank to 25,889. Declared Gordon Craig, president of cable television’s The Sports Network (TSN): “We’ve broadcast games in Toronto this year where the announced attendance was 20,000. If there were 12,000 people in the stands, they were counting double.”

Poor attendance has cost the league more than gate receipts.

In 1984, in return for $11 million annually, Carling O’Keefe won a three-year contract for the rights to broadcast games.

But when the contract expired last season, the CFL was unable to renew the deal or find an alternative sponsor. As a result, the CFL formed its own production agency, the Canadian Football Network, and marketed its games through a chain of independent

stations, as well as TSN and the CBC. But under the new arrangement, broadcasting revenues for each team are only expected to reach $350,000 for the season, compared to $1.2 million last year. Said

John Barnett, director of development for Carling O’Keefe: “As an advertising vehicle, the CFL’s value is diminishing. The league is not getting enough new fans in the 19-to-30 age bracket. That does not bode well for the future.”

As commissioner, Mitchell, a Calgary lawyer, has become a focal point for dissatisfaction. His own popularity suffered last month after The Ottawa Citizen disclosed details of his threeyear agreement with the league. But critics say that the league faces other problems: television competition from higher quality NFL football; a high turnover of personnel, which discourages fan loyalty; unfavorable scheduling of televised games; and, with average seat prices of $15, increased competition for the entertainment dollar. Said former Montreal Alouettes defensive back Bruce Coulter, now head football coach at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que.: “I watch the CFL and have seen some dandy games. But nowadays, there are plenty of alternative activities to paying $20 to sit and drink beer for three hours.” Added veteran Hamilton defensive back Paul Bennett: “I’m glad I’m near the end of my career. I don’t know if I could take much more of this.”

-DAN BURKE in Montreal with DALE EISLER in Regina.