Sports

Small is beautiful

Brenda Branswell September 27 1999
Sports

Small is beautiful

Brenda Branswell September 27 1999

Small is beautiful

Brenda Branswell

Sports

Pierre Chevalier gave up on the Montreal Alouettes years ago. He had been a season ticket-holder, but lost interest in the Canadian Football League team even before it went out of business in 1987. At the time, the team was in constant turmoil in the front office, and

the product on the field suffered. So when a new Alouettes franchise was launched in 1996, the 53-year-old salesman still stayed away. But last season, his interest piqued by an exciting Alouettes team that played in a cozy outdoor venue instead of the cavernous Olympic Stadium, he went to some late-season games and, excited by what he saw, happily paid $600 for two season tickets this

year. Last week, while he and a sell-out crowd watched the Als crush the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats 52-19, he said he had come to enjoy the no-frills charms of 19,461-seat Molson Stadium. “The ambience is warm, its intimate and its fun,” he says. “Everybody is really into it.” Sports fans love a great comeback, and few revivals in recent memory can match that of the once-dead Alouettes. How far have they come? Following the Hamilton game, the hockey-obsessed Journal de Montréal, which normally focuses the bulk of its sports-section attention on the NHL Canadiens, raved about the Alouettes on its Sept. 13 front page under the headline: “The best show in town!” While baseball’s Expos draw tiny crowds to the billiondollar Olympic Stadium, the Alouettes now boast 10,037 season ticket-holders, up from 2,500 two seasons ago. And average attendance has climbed to 19,205 from 9,000 in 1997—enough to convince team owners to investi-

gate ways to expand the stadium.

Once among the cornerstones of the league, the Alouettes declared bankruptcy in 1987 after running into major financial troubles under the direction of their mercurial owner, free-spending Vancouver entrepreneur Nelson Skalbania. They were finally resuscitated when Larry Smith, a former Alouette, stepped down in 1996 as CFL commissioner to become the team’s president, and convinced Robert Wetenhall, a New York investor and onetime part-owner of the National Football League’s New England Patriots, to buy the club. At a key juncture for the beleaguered league, which had just suffered an embarrassing collapse of its ill-conceived expansion into the United States, and had franchises in Hamilton and Ottawa that were barely alive, Wetenhalls willingness to underwrite the Alouettes was a huge boost. “It was lifesaving for the CFL,” says Dan Ferrone, president of the Canadian Football League Player’s Association. “We couldn’t afford to see another franchise go under at that point.”

Wetenhall has lost more than $5 mil-

Playing in a modest stadium, the first-place Alouettes have become Montreal’s hot ticket

lion since he bought the club. But he recently renewed his pledge to make the franchise work. He claims the Alouettes will break even if they can raise their annual corporate sponsorship income to $2.5 million from about $2 million currently, and add 4,000 seats to Molson Stadium—the league’s smallest venue. CFL officials are amazed at what Wetenhall and Smith have achieved. “They started almost from ground zero and started selling ticket by ticket and corporation by corporation,” says CFL president and chief operating officer Jeff Giles. “They’re doing it one brick at a time, just like we are.”

Luck played a role. Montreal officials trace the current success in part to a scheduling conflict in 1997 at Olympic Stadium. The 56,245-seat east-end arena had been booked for a rock concert by the band U2 on a date when the Alouettes were slated to play an eastern division playoff game. As an alternative venue, Smith opted for McGill University’s Molson Stadium, a dilapidated facility in need of major renovation—in one crumbling section, a maple tree protruded through the stands. More than 16,000 fans turned out for that game and, Smith says, “it didn’t take a rocket scientist” to figure out the club should relocate. The Als have since spent $550,000 refurbishing the facility, and two years later, football is a hot ticket.

Montreal’s fortunes mirror those of the CFL—the league, after all, nearly disbanded in 1996. “We made it very hard to be a CFL fan,” says Giles, “because people wanted to believe in us but we did all kinds of things to lose their trust.” But under the volunteer chairmanship of John Tory, president and CEO of Rogers Cablesystems Ltd., the CFL has rebounded strongly in the past two years by adhering to stringent cost controls, including player salary caps. This year alone, overall attendance has climbed 10.5 per cent, spurred by better turnouts in key markets such as Vancouver and Toronto. And for the second year in a row, ratings on The Sports Network have soared—by 37 per cent this season so far—while its French-language affili-

ate, RDS, reports a whopping 94-percent rise in viewership.

But also like the Montreal team, the CFL still isn’t in the black. It lost nearly $ 10 million last year, almost entirely because of losses posted by the Toronto Argonauts, B.C. Lions and the Alouettes. Giles says the CFL needs another $4 million to $8 million in annual corporate sponsorships to survive, and he is not ruling out another attempt to ex-

pand into the United States—although that “isn’t first and foremost on our minds.” Instead, he expects some Canadian expansion, including a team in Ottawa to replace the failed Rough Riders. The mere mention of U.S. expansion makes some observers shudder. “I get nervous when I hear that,” says Michael Gouinlock, a partner at Lang & Associates, a Toronto associative marketing firm. “I think you’re starting to get outside your area of expertise.”

With its modest stadium and grassroots marketing approach, Montreal, in fact, might be a model for the league. Part of the league’s attraction is that in an era of millionaire athletes, fans say they can better relate to CFL players who earn an average of only $43,000, yet still go all-out on the field. Still,

nothing puts fans in seats better than a winning team, and Montreal has that, too. The surprising Als lead the eastern division despite an erratic offence. “We have yet to play 60 minutes of really good football like we need to do in order to get to the Grey Cup,” running back Mike Pringle, the league’s MVP last year, said prior to the Ticats game. They did that against Hamilton—even without injured starting quarterback

Tracy Ham, the Als scored seven touchdowns. And their defence, which in preseason was judged a possible weakness, now ranks as one of the best.

So the Grey Cup may be a realistic goal. To that end, the players want to capture first place so that the eastern final will be played on their home field. It’s easy to see why—what the stadium lacks in esthetics, it makes up for in enthusiasm. Fireman George O’Reilly, 48, bought season tickets in a raucous section near the end zone. “I just wish there were 10,000 or 15,000 more seats so more people could enjoy it,” O’Reilly said during last week’s game. “It’s spectacular.” Smith and Wetenhall would like the revenue from extra seats, too, but for the Alouettes right now, small has proven to be beautiful. E23