Toronto hopes 'Rocket' will boost CFL

July 14, 1991|By Tim Cowlishaw | Tim Cowlishaw,Dallas Morning News

There are eight Canadian Football League teams, and six of them lost money in 1990. There is a $3 million salary cap per team in the CFL, and the Toronto Argonauts have guaranteed more than that to Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. Montreal, the nation's second-largest market, no longer has a CFL team.

Even the luring of Ismail away from the National Football League has soured. When it occurred in April, it was regarded as a huge victory for the league. But the former Notre Dame star has missed all three of Toronto's preseason games because of pulls -- a muscle pull and having four wisdom teeth extracted.

Ismail did not play Thursday night when the Argonauts opened their regular season at Ottawa. Reports indicated his coach and some of his teammates have about lost their patience with what they perceive to be Ismail's indifference toward the team.

For those who don't follow the CFL closely -- and that's just about everyone in this country and a high percentage of $H Canadians -- it's clear the CFL remains a league in trouble with or without a boost from the Rocket.

Most teams, including Toronto, lost money last year even when the Argonauts' quarterback, Matt Dunigan, was the league's highest-paid player at $350,000.

"I've seen people throw money around before, and I haven't seen pay dividends," said Montreal Gazette sports director Pat Hickey, who has covered the CFL for years.

He remembers 1981, when the Montreal Alouettes signed NFL veterans Vince Ferragamo, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and James Scott, along with Keith Gary and David Overstreet, highly drafted players from Oklahoma. "It basically drove the team into bankruptcy," Hickey said.

Dallas Cowboys personnel director Bob Ackles, who spent 32 years in the CFL, thinks the Ismail signing could be different.

"The guy who owned that Montreal team, Nelson Skalbania -- I was with him at the league meetings when he bought the team," Ackles said. "He looked at all those empty seats and talked about how Ferragamo was going to fill those seats and he would make X-number of dollars. I don't think Bruce [McNall, the Argonauts owner] is quite that naive. He's a very intelligent businessman who always thinks things out."

Ottawa general manager Joann Polak agrees McNall appears to know what he's doing.

"Montreal signed players looking for those players to save them on the field. That's impossible," she said. "One player can't make difference. But he [McNall] isn't trying to strengthen his team on the field. He's trying to draw attention to the team in the largest market in the country."

Ismail's signing, on the heels of the Cowboys' acquisition of the top pick in the NFL draft, was greeted in Canada with great pomp. The Rocket appeared on the cover of Maclean's magazine, Canada's version of Time.

"In my five years with the league, that's the first time the CFL has been on the cover," Polak said.

But she also admits Ismail could add to the league's substantial problems. Ismail signed a personal-services contract with McNall who also owns the NHL's Los Angeles Kings -- guaranteeing him $18 million over four seasons. The fact that the Rocket will average $4.5 million a year playing for a team whose salary is $1.5 million less than that hasn't been lost on teammates and opponents.

"We've got players we were close to signing, players that make about $40,000," Polak said. "Now they want $75,000. They want part of this new TV contract they're hearing about. It's going to cause problems."

TV negotiations continue though the telecast schedule for this season is in place. Last season, each CFL team received approximately $450,000 in league TV revenue. With McNall's purchase of the Argonauts and the signing of Ismail, the most optimistic of CFL officials was hoping that figure could increase to $1 million per team. In the NFL, each team averages $28 million per year through the four-year deal that was signed before last season.

"I can't imagine a viable business operating this way," said an official from CTV, Canada's largest private network.

CTV has not shown games the past three years and is only interested in carrying CFL games if the blackout rule is changed so that home games in Toronto and nearby Hamilton won't cause the nation's largest market to be blacked out.

"Under the right circumstances, which means no blackout, we're interested," a CTV official said.

The league has other problems. The $3 million salary cap, designed to produce fiscal responsibility, is a joke. McNall proved it by signing Ismail to a "personal-services" contract, the same tactic British Columbia owner Murray Pezim used to sign Doug Flutie.

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