SPORTS

The CFL’s future

Grey Cup week is a boon to Winnipeg

D’ARCY JENISH November 25 1991
SPORTS

The CFL’s future

Grey Cup week is a boon to Winnipeg

D’ARCY JENISH November 25 1991

The CFL’s future

SPORTS

Grey Cup week is a boon to Winnipeg

Winnipeg dentist Neville Winograd, 68, says that football for him has been a lifelong passion. He played the sport as a high-school student in his city, and he has held Blue Bomber season’s tickets since 1948. He has travelled as far as Montreal and Vancouver to attend almost 30 of the past 40 Grey Cup games that determine the annual champion of the Canadian Football League. And on Nov. 24, Winograd and his wife, Grace, plan to take their seats near the 50yard line at Winnipeg Stadium to watch the 79th annual Grey Cup game—the first ever played in the Manitoba capital. For the Winograds and thousands of other Winnipeggers, the contest will be much more than a football game. It is a chance to put their city in the national spotlight. Said Arthur Mauro, chairman of the Grey Cup festivities organizing committee: “It will show that Winnipeg is a vibrant community, not just snow and ice.”

The participants in the championship game were determined on the weekend, when the Blue Bombers met the Toronto Argonauts in the eastern division final and the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos vied for supremacy in the West. For the CFL, the Grey Cup is a yearly opportunity to expose its product to a larger-than-average TV audience, and this year the game will be available in 26 million American homes through Los Angeles-based cable network Prime Ticket. It is also a chance to erase the blemishes caused by a turbulent regular season. In 1991, total attendance crept over the two million mark for the first time since 1986, but fan support actually fell in five of eight CFL cities. B.C. Lions owner Murray Pezim told Maclean’s that a majority of the teams lost money this year (his dropped $1.5 million). The most visible problems occurred in Ottawa, where the league had to operate the Rough Riders from mid-July, when the club’s previous ownership group fell apart, until midOctober, when Detroit developer Bernard Glieberman bought the team for an estimated $3 million.

But most club owners and their executives insist that they are still optimistic about the future of the league, and are even considering expansion. Last July, the owners set up a seven-member committee to explore the possibility of adding franchises in Quebec, Atlantic Canada and even the United States. Winnipeg general manager Cal Murphy, a member of the committee, said that potential investors from Portland, Ore., the Detroit area and St. Petersburg, Fla., have contacted the committee in Toronto. Murphy added that the committee has decided to avoid detailed discussions with interested outsiders until it has drafted terms and guidelines for expansion.

Although the expansion committee is still in the preliminary phases of its work, some owners say that the league must grow, and that the United States is one of the best markets for new franchises. Pezim said that he is convinced that the CFL should expand in time for the 1993 season. He added that the league would have to export the Canadian game, with three downs instead of four and a larger field, to distinguish it from the game played in the National Football League. Pezim and others acknowledge that the CFL’s import rules, which stipulate that a certain number of players on each team must be Canadian, would be a major obstacle to U.S. expansion.

Although expansion is a complex issue, league executives say that they are confident that the CFL can flourish in the United States and even make a comeback in Canada, because most of the teams are capable of playing exciting, high-quality football. Eskimo head coach Ron Lancaster pointed out that the top three teams in the West—Edmonton, Calgary and British Columbia, respectively—finished the 18-game schedule only two points apart. Argonaut head coach Adam Rita said that the CFL has become a high-scoring league dominated by offence. He noted that on average, every team scored 21 points per game, the equivalent of three converted touchdowns.

For their part, most of the owners claim that the league’s financial position is improving, even if most of the clubs are losing money. Pezim said that his losses in 1991 declined by $700,000 from the $2.2 million he lost in 1990. Rough Rider president Lonie Glieberman, 23, said that his father, Bernard, bought the Ottawa club because he saw it as an undervalued asset. Said Glieberman: “We’re getting in at a good time. The CFL is on its way back.”

While the owners are focusing on the league’s longterm prospects, Winnipeggers are concentrating on Grey Cup week. Mauro said that city officials are expecting an influx of visitors from northwestern Ontario and across the Prairies. The game itself is also expected to be sold out, even though the Blue Bombers added 19,000 temporary seats to bring the stadium’s capacity to almost 52,000.

As the Grey Cup festivities got under way, the weather was the only potential spoiler on the horizon. League officials and civic organizers were hoping to avoid a repeat of a lateOctober cold snap that brought heavy snowfalls to all three Prairie provinces. Clearly, foul weather and a poor game are not what the CFL wants, or needs, for its premier event.

D’ARCY JENISH