Someday—maybe in the not-too-distant future—CFL may stand for Continental Football League, or some other name that preserves the initials. Commissioner Larry Smith has banked the league’s future on expansion to the United States, and last week’s Grey Cup between Baltimore and British Columbia brought the Americanization of the game to fast fruition. It is still a threedown, 110-yard affair, and there are still eight teams on Canadian turf. But Smith has made it clear that virtually everything else that makes the league Canadian is up for grabs—including the number of Canadians on the field. Canadian clubs, which under the current system have to carry at least 20 “non-imports,” claim that United States-based teams, which are under no such restrictions, enjoy an unfair advantage because they have a greater number of players from which to choose. For all the changes Smith has brought to the league since becoming commissioner nearly three years ago, the seemingly inevitable cut in the quotas may prove his toughest sell. “We are going to strenuously resist any reductions in the quotas,” said Dan Ferrone, president of the players’ association. “The issue is a major concern of our members.”
While generally in better shape than in past years, the league continues to live on the edge. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats struggled to make their payroll in mid-season before emergency funds resuscitated the 125-year-old team. And the expansion Las Vegas Posse drew so few fans in the gambling capital (an average of fewer than 10,000 per game) that
the league ran the Posse out of town—to Edmonton—for their final “home” game. But CFL fans set those troubles aside as they thrilled to a succession of rivetting playoff games, culminating in a Grey Cup matchup made in marketing heaven. “That is what we have been trying to build, a real North American championship,” Smith said. ‘We just got it sooner than we expected.”
Though Smith has plenty of detractors among CFL nationalists, he continues to forge ahead with expansion, claiming it is the only way the league will survive. Last month, he awarded a new franchise to Memphis, Tenn., and he is investigating other cities—including a new home for the Posse. Smith remains unwaveringly optimistic despite the perception
that, where the CFL goes, trouble often follows. A team awarded to San Antonio, Tex., two years ago never even got started. The next year, the league gathered the media in Orlando, Fla., to announce a new franchise there, only to have the deal fall apart at the last second. And teams in Sacramento, Calif., and Shreveport, La., have struggled financially. Still, CFL executives roundly dismissed rumors that they are dissatisfied with their commissioner. The league is beginning to attract
more corporate sponsorship, and for once there may be competing bids for its network television rights, now held by the CBC. “I worry that Larry might bum out and decide to leave,” said Edmonton general manager Hugh Campbell, “but no team in the CFL would want that to happen. He is a tireless worker, very bright, and we are behind him.”
The push to lower player quotas comes from Canadian teams. They contend that, because U.S. colleges produce so many more better-trained players than their Canadian counterparts, American teams can find replacements for injured
starters more easily. But there will be a cost if the quotas are cut, says Calgary lawyer Greg Vavra, a former CFL quarterback. “I think it will have a detrimental effect on the opportunities of Canadians to play the game,” he says. And any change to the quota would have to be negotiated into the next collective agreement with the players, beginning in mid-December.
Ferrone claims that the drive to drop the quota is a monetary issue. On U.S.-based teams, rookie Americans are paid an average of $29,000 a season. Canadian teams, however, do not import players to sit on the bench, so if rookie Americans start, they get paid an average of $50,000 to $60,000 per season, Ferrone says.
Certainly, there seems little evidence that all-American teams have a significant advantage. Baltimore did finish fourth overall this season, but the other three U.S. entries were near the bottom of the standings. “I don’t think Baltimore being in the Grey Cup has anything to do with the number of Canadians on the
field,” says B.C. lions centre Ian Sin-
clair, a Canadian. Baltimore defensive lineman Jearld Baylis, an American, agrees: “If the quotas were such a disadvantage, there would have been two American teams in the Grey Cup.”
No matter what happens to the Canadian quotas, the American teams are here to stay. ‘You can’t ban Americans from the Grey Cup any more than Americans can ban Toronto from the World Series,” said Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon after Baltimore defeated his beloved Winnipeg Blue Bombers to gain a championship-game berth. For Canadian fans of the league—whatever it’s called—the message is simple: get used to it.
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