SPORTS

Day of decision

The CFL’s problem is American football

TRENT FRAYNE December 12 1988
SPORTS

Day of decision

The CFL’s problem is American football

TRENT FRAYNE December 12 1988

Day of decision

SPORTS

The CFL’s problem is American football

TRENT FRAYNE

he Canadian Football League, hungering for months and months for a little public attention, suddenly found itself showering in front-page ink last week. First came a wild and wacky Grey Cup game, which packed every ingredient needed for an East-West confrontation except a team

from the East (the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who play in the CFL’s eastern division, kayoed the Toronto Argonauts in the Grey Cup semifinal, earning the right to play the western champion B.C. Lions in the big game). Then, in the wake of a 22-21 thriller won by the Bombers came the stunning reports that Harry Ornest, a peripatetic sports entrepreneur from Edmonton via Beverly Hills, Calif., had laid down $5 million for 95 per cent of the debtridden Argos and needed only the approval of five of the other seven CFL teams to complete the deal.

That could come on Dec. 12, when the league’s governors meet in Toronto to vote. Will he get approval? Not if the celebrated grump, Harold Ballard, has his way. “If I have anything to do with it, he won’t get in,” welcomed the 85-year-old owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He wouldn’t be a good partner. He’s never been known to give a dime away. The other owners will do what the hell they like, but I’m

not anxious to have him as a partner.” Between breaths, Ballard was also threatening to move his Tiger-Cats out of Hamilton, squabbling with the city fathers over rents at the civic-owned Ivor Wynne Stadium.

The knock against the smooth-talking Ornest, clarioned and thundered in Toronto newspapers, is that he is interested not so much in the Argonauts and the CFL as in acquiring the team’s lease in Toronto’s new

SkyDome stadium, due to open next midsummer. If the CFL were to go belly up, Ornest would be in position to lure the exalted National Football League to the dome.

Still, apart from crotchety Ballard, other CFL people either appeared gratified that a freshly minted owner was in line to

succeed his unenthusiastic predecessor, Carling O’Keefe Breweries of Canada Ltd., or were taking a waitand-see stance until the Dec.

12 meeting. “I think [Ornest’s purchase] is a positive move,” Ottawa Rough Riders president Hap Nicholds said.

“Obviously, the people at Carling O’Keefe have lost interest in sport.” Said Joe Galat, the B.C. Lions’ general manager: “It gives the league more credibility. Harry Ornest is a good businessman.”

Edmonton Eskimos president Rick LeLacheur had few misgivings. “I think it’s positive,” he said. “I really believe you can operate a viable CFL franchise in Toronto. But I’m going to sit back and see what happens.”

For his part, Ornest, who owned the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues from 1983 to 1986, kept insisting that he had no ulterior motive in buying the ancient Toronto franchise. “I believe the CFL is on the upswing,” he told a news conference last week. “I didn’t buy the team unblinkingly. When you combine the city of Toronto with the SkyDome and the Argos, it ain’t bad at all. I think what’s going on in the CFL lately is evidence it’s healthy. The television ratings are good, the game itself is good, and there have been two great Grey Cup games in a row.” And he wasn’t all that upset over the Ballard outburst. “Harold was on the phone to Ralph Sazio,” Ornest said, referring to the Argonauts president. “He told Ralph, ‘I never said it. They misquoted me. We want Harry. We need him.’ ”

Meanwhile, awaiting next Monday’s day of decision, Canadian fans turned south for further football fixes. There, the NFL wends its way toward next month’s Super Bowl, the annual rite that ignites tales of fun-filled afternoons in the Rome Colosseum. And while the fans are peering there, football executives beyond the environs of Toronto, including Winnipeg’s Dr. Ross Brown, are turning their attention to next year in the CFL.

Dr. Ross Brown is smaller than the St. Boniface General Hospital, where he is a senior administrator, but at six feet, 6V2 inches, not smaller by much. Accordingly, when this current president of the Grey Cup champion Blue Bombers talks, people tend not to interrupt: “You get a 6-3 football game in the NFL, and people watching on television in Canada shake their heads and say, ‘Wow, what a great defensive battle.’ You get a 6-3 game in the CFL, and those same people say, ‘What a lousy game.’ It’s this attitude we’re working on.” Brown, a Winnipeg native, is back home after 11 years as a full professor at the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Centre. He was exposed autumn after autumn to the Oklahoma Sooners, one of the power teams in U.S. college football.

“What you have to recognize in any attempt to sell Canadian football,” said Brown, “is that it is not a poor copy of American football, that it really is not the same game at all. My father-inlaw, William Lowe of Rosebank, Man., south

bank, Man., came south one time and we sat in on a game where 73,000 people were caught up in their own frenzy. He’s not a football fan, but as the excitement around us grew, he found himself on his feet, and he cried out to me, ‘Isn’t this the greatest thing!’ “You see,” Brown went on, “in the States, football is a g full day’s outing. There are 9 the tailgate parties where the 2 autumn air is filled with the e. smell of hamburgers sizzling É on hundreds of hibachis, peopie with recreational vehicles are parked and having a beer with the people around them. The game is only part of a long ritual. Literally, they go home tired but happy. By contrast, we Canadians get to the park 15 minutes before the game and then, even during an exciting game, hundreds and hundreds of us rush off with 10 minutes to go to beat the traffic. We’re the darndest country for beating the traffic. So, it’s up to us to sell our unique game to our fans. If they want to leave early, that’s up to them, but we’re at least going to get them into the park. And the way we can do that, I think, is to emphasize the kind of game we have.”

The kind of game Canada has is not the precise, controlled brand of the NFL, where excitement is generated at least in part by crowd immensity and, on another level, by the enormous skill of the American pros. Canadian gates have been hurt in recent years by a sort of bigleague complex among some fans who relegate the CFL to minor-league status. John Bassett, a lanky, outspoken former owner of a piece of the Toronto Argonauts, noted that factor last week when he likened Ornest’s purchase to reserving a suite on the Titanic. “Rightly or wrongly,” he said, “people consider the CFL minor league. They have major-league baseball and major-league hockey.” That holds true for the big centres, the Expos and the Blue Jays in Montreal and Toronto, and now the Oilers, the Flames, the Jets and the Canucks in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver, cities that are the backbone of the CFL.

But Ottawa Judge Gary Schreider, a former Ottawa Rough Riders backfielder, endorses the Dr. Ross Brown demurrer that the CFL is a different game, not major or minor anything, but unique. The trouble is, this point is a secret to a lot of people. “Television blackouts have hurt,” Schreider said. “Today’s yuppies want the best and they were brought up watching the NFL on television. I know our game and I think it’s got more action. But the kids who grew up not being able to see CFL games understandably perceive it as being inferior.”

Other students of the game cite other reasons for attendance declines. Terry Kielty, former Ottawa president, deplores a comparatively recent vast turnover of players, presenting fans with a recognition problem. “A generation ago, players came north, played ball, got jobs and settled here in every CFL city,” Kielty said. “Think of the players—Ronnie Lancas-

ter, Bernie Faloney, Sam Etcheverry, Jackie Parker, Dave Thelen, Dick Shatto, Angelo Mosca, Kenny Pioen, I could go on and on— and all of them household names. It used to be that after five years, they were designated as Canadians, not imports. Now, with that rule abandoned, Jialf the guys are up here for a game or two and then gone.”

The retiring CFL commissioner, Doug Mitchell, concedes those points. Two years ago, he persuaded owners to ease blackout regulations. Now, he says, the league is “addressing” the recognition factor again. Added Mitchell: “Last year, in a survey of fans, the number 1

recommendation was to enhance player identity. We’re looking at the old Canadianization rule as one means.”

The former general manager of the Rough Riders, Ottawa lawyer John (Jake) Dunlap, calls the long slide of the CFL a matter of basic economics. “There’s only so much revenue,” he said, “so the teams have got to adapt to it. They weren’t doing that. They were bringing in players in July, paying them huge salaries, and they were often gone in October—nobody knew them, there were no ties to the cities, and the teams were going ever deeper into the hole. But now, with the $3-million salary cap and the TV package improving, the picture is brightening.” A year ago, Mitchell persuaded owners to impose a $3-million limit on football

operations and launched a private-station TV network, CFN, that produced $350,000 in 1987 for each team and $450,000 in 1988 and is likely to hit $600,000 next season.

But that is stuff for worrywarts in the accounting department. Ultimately, the thing that will make or break the Canadian game is the product on the field and fans discovering again that it can be an eye-filling product. Often, when it is at its worst, it’s at its best—a wild and crazy spectacle in which mistakes can almost always be amended because, in the three-down game, the ball is endlessly changing hands. Until time runs out, there’s always

another chance, and in close games, including last week’s marvellously bizarre Grey Cup, fans’ emotions are wrung to their limit.

Denny Boyd, a bespectacled sage at The Vancouver Sun, once wrote about a football guy who captured the essence of the Canadian game. “Bill Burrell, a big, agile linebacker from Chicago, played just three seasons for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and made the 1962 all-star team. In the off-season of 1963, he died of leukemia in Chicago. The last thing he asked for before he died was that his body be returned to Regina and that he be buried there in his Roughrider green sweater. The Regina experience had meant that much to him.” Maybe the owners will be thinking of things like that next Monday.