The 44 Montreal Alouettes waited in their dressing room. It was the day before their first scheduled game of the 1987 Canadian Football League (CFL) season. But instead of preparing for their game with the Toronto Argonauts, the players gathered at Olympic Stadium last Wednesday morning for a meeting with Alouette co-owner Norm Kimball. At 9 a.m. he called them into the team’s conference room. Twenty minutes later they filed out as former Alouettes. Ten minutes after that, in Toronto, CFL commissioner Douglas Mitchell officially announced that the Alouettes franchise had ceased operations. Said Mitchell: “In the final analysis, it’s like a death in the family.”
The demise of the once-illustrious club—it traced its roots to 1868 and boasted six Grey Cups—seemed sudden, but was actually protracted. In 1981 Vancouver entrepreneur Nelson Skalbania bought the team from retired Montreal lawyer and businessman Sam Berger, who absorbed millions of dollars in losses during his benevolent 13-year proprietorship. The following year Skalbania declared the team bankrupt. Montreal businessman Charles Bronfman and Imasco Ltd. stepped in and lost $17 million in five years. In March, unwilling to sustain further losses, Bronfman and Imasco gave the team—and $2 million to cover losses—to Kimball and Edmonton businessman Jim Hole. Last week a financial analysis indicated that— with fewer than 4,000 season tickets sold for the 58,643-seat stadium—the club could meet its weekly expenses of $175,000 for just two weeks. Said Kimball: “Montreal fans have shown us they aren’t interested in our product. Quite frankly, the CFL hasn’t had Montreal for the past few years anyway. The league will be stronger.”
If so, the strength will come from last week’s dispersal draft of the Alouette players by the remaining eight teams and from the ending of Montreal’s drain on the league’s finances. The teams share TV revenues equally, and a program balances gate-receipt income among the teams. Said Winnipeg Blue Bomber general manager Earl Lunsford, whose team lost $155,000 last season as attendance dropped by 1,200 per game from 1985: “In the past five or six years our club particu-
larly has been propping up that team with gate-equalization payments.” And Joe Galat, general manager of the B.C. Lions who made $306,251 in 1986, says that the Lions will be an additional $500,000 better off without Montreal. Added Galat: “It will be like going on a business trip without a good friend you had expected to accompany you. Things might be a bit less fun, but you’re likely to get a lot more work done.”
The CFL’s first chore was a realignment and rescheduling. The Bombers suddenly became the fourth team in the Eastern Conference. They filled in for Montreal as Toronto’s opposition last week and earned a 38-30 victory before 33,412 spectators. Instead of five western and four eastern teams, there are two four-team divisions. With Winnipeg in the East, two western Canadian teams could
now meet in the Grey Cup, disrupting an east-west tradition since 1945.
But another CFL tradition is that at least one club flirts with bankruptcy each year. In 1985 the Calgary club survived when its “Save our Stamps” campaign resulted in 22,400 seasonticket sales. After a $1.5-million loss in 1985, the team made $175,000 in 1986. Last year in Ottawa CHUM Ltd. sold the team for $1 to a group of 27 local businessmen. Last season attendance was down by 18,848. This spring the Saskatchewan team announced that it might fold by July. The city waived its $400,000 rental fee for Taylor Field, and a TV and radio “tickethon” drew in 77,000 pledges to buy tickets. Still, the team must attract 23,000 fans to each game to break even. Attendance at the first regular season game was 21,340.
The CFL’s future, rarely bright, has never looked so dark. Said Saskatchewan director of administration AÍ Ford: “In terms of a competitive level, this will help the teams. But it’s a terrible way to do it.”
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