Sports

The Cup runneth over

Hope springs eternal in the long-troubled CFL

JAMES DEACON December 9 1996
Sports

The Cup runneth over

Hope springs eternal in the long-troubled CFL

JAMES DEACON December 9 1996

The Cup runneth over

Sports

Hope springs eternal in the long-troubled CFL

It was -8° and snowing sideways when the Edmonton Eskimos kicked off the 1996 Grey Cup Game in Hamilton on Nov. 24. But for fans who braved the benches at Ivor Wynne Stadium that night, the meteorological assault was as much a part of the Canadian Football League final as three downs and spiked thermoses. “This is what we come for,” laughed Tom Young, a

the American division (Baltimore, Memphis, Shreveport, San Antonio, Birmingham) disappeared altogether, leaving the league with nine Canadian teams. And when play began, three of those entries (Ottawa, Montreal, B.C.) foundered and two of their owners (Ottawa and B.C.) stopped paying the bills. The league handed out nearly $4 million of its TV and sponsorship revenues,

Hamilton supermarket manager who was wearing a snow-splattered Tiger-Cats parka and matching toque. “It wouldn’t be Grey Cup without it.” Still, the Toronto Argonauts’ exhilarating 43-37 victory over the Eskimos was tinged with sadness. The financially strapped CFL seemed even closer to death’s door in recent weeks, prompting some columnists to suggest the 1996 Grey Cup might be the last. And that, said Edmonton coach Ron Lancaster, who has been a CFL player, broadcaster and coach in the league for 36 years, would be a tragedy. “No one ever knows what they’ve got until it’s gone,” Lancaster said glumly. “Then they miss it.” By any measure, the CFL is in serious trouble. Before the 1996 season even began,

mostly to prop up Ottawa. The bailout failed—the league has since revoked the Rough Riders’ franchise—and it threatened the solvency of the six otherwise stable teams that had counted on their share of league revenues to balance their budgets.

As grim as that sounds, hope springs eternal in a league accustomed to calamity. “We have a commitment from the owners, we are putting a viable business plan together and we are coming off a fantastic Grey Cup,” says chairman John Tory, who only a month before had warned that the CFL was on its last legs. “The challenge is to move quickly and capitalize on that momentum.”

Skeptics might ascribe Tory’s turnabout to Grey Cup fever. After all, the Cup has long

been the CFL’s savior. It has a remarkable knack for producing exciting games, and it generally gets terrific TV ratings—the 1996 game drew a nationwide audience of 3.9 million—which helps convince corporate and broadcast backers to sign on for another season. But both Tory and commissioner Larry Smith say they have a solid foundation for their optimism. At a meeting the day before the game in Hamilton, league governors promised to follow rigid guidelines designed to hold down player salaries and operating costs. Although the league already had a voluntary salary cap in place—$2.1 million per team—most teams exceeded their limits in an effort to improve their rosters. “The way they were operating was just not sustainable,” Tory said. “The league was going to collapse.” Even if the owners stay in line, the CFL still faces a third-down-and-long situation.

New B.C. Lions owner David Braley says he needs to sell 15,000 season tickets before next season to make that franchise viable; by last week he had peddled only 1,300. In Montreal, majority owner Jim Speros says he has secured the necessary backing to keep the Alouettes afloat, but in Ottawa the Rough Riders appear dead. ‘To me, that would be a shame,” says Smith, “but if we don’t have Ottawa to start the season, we will live with that.” Smith is looking for payroll concessions, too, but players association boss Dan Ferrone says the athletes have already taken cuts to their salaries, which average $45,000 per season.

Smith, whose contract is about to expire, is expected to stay on if the owners ratify his restructuring scheme. Part of the plan is to eliminate each team’s “franchise” player, whose salary does not count under the cap. That designation allowed Argos’ quarterback Doug Flutie, who this year ran off with the league’s top individual awards as well as the Grey Cup, to earn a league-high

$1 million. But while the CFL cannot offer riches to most, it still offers a field of opportunity to American players who fail to make the National Football League. “Even if he makes just $35,000—which in professional sports isn’t a lot—that’s a lot for a guy just out of college,” says Argo running back Mike (Pinball) Clemons, a Florida native. Echoing a sentiment expressed by other Canadians, Hamilton-born Paul Massotti hoped the league might someday be as hot a ticket in Toronto as it is in the CFL’s Western heartland. ‘Wouldn’t it be great,” the Toronto receiver wondered, “if it became cool to go to a CFL game again?”

JAMES DEACON

in Hamilton