CFL adds U.S. to terminology

February 07, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

The Canadian Football League is set to blow into Baltimore next week on the cool winds of change. Like an arctic freeze, though, the CFL will take some getting used to.

For openers, there are three downs instead of four, 12 men to a side, not 11. And there's the rouge, a single point awarded to a kicking team when a punt or missed field-goal attempt isn't returned out of the end zone or goes out of bounds in the end zone.

Get ready to hear about the "neg" list -- negotiable players for each team -- and the marquee player whose contract doesn't count against the salary cap. And unlimited motion in the backfield and the 20-second clock between plays.

What in heaven's name has Baltimore gotten itself into, eh?

Something big, says Jim Speros, the man who wants to bring pro football -- CFL style -- back to Baltimore with a team called the Colts.

"We're on the cutting edge of something I think will be huge in the U.S.," Speros said, almost breathlessly. "Baltimore has a chance to be part of history."

Speros is among the visionaries who predict great things for the CFL in the 1990s. It's the league's recent past that Speros hopes not to duplicate. That past includes the flagship franchise in Montreal going belly-up in 1987. It includes every other team in the league wrestling with recession-scarred economics, some more painfully than others. It includes annual reports of the league's demise.

Mark Twain has nothing on the league north of the border.

"I've heard doom and gloom for the league for the last 15 years," said Don Matthews, coach of Baltimore's would-be Colts and a CFL coach for 16 years, nine as head coach.

"Every year, there's always a crisis, but it's been around a long time. And it always survives. I expect it to be around a lot longer."

Depending on whose calendar you use, Canadian football has been around 36 years (since 1958, when the CFL broke from the Canadian Rugby Union), 110 years (since 1884, when the rugby union was founded) or 133 years (since 1861, the first documented football game). In case you're wondering, they've played 82 Grey Cups, including two in 1940, when university teams were allowed to compete for the title.

So why is a league with that kind of tradition moving south across the border? Simple: survival.

Before the league expanded to Sacramento, Calif., in 1993, the CFL hadn't expanded since 1954, when it took in the British Columbia Lions. Between expansions, it was a mom-and-pop league. Status quo was fine when it boomed as late as the 1970s. But when Canadian television money dried up and the league went bust in the 1980s recession, change was in order.

A new breed of owner, late on the scene, dictated that change would come in the form of expansion. And that expansion would be southward into the United States.

"There's no business I know that hasn't expanded since 1954 and is still surviving," said Bill Comrie, who bought the B.C. Lions in 1992 after the league revoked the franchise of financially strapped Murray Pezam. "We've got an absolutely great game. That's the reason it survived, because the game is so exciting."

Between 1991 and 1992, five CFL teams changed hands. Bruce McNall of Los Angeles triggered the activity when he bought the Toronto Argonauts before the 1991 season. By October, Bernie Glieberman, a Detroit businessman, bailed out a sinking Ottawa Rough Riders franchise. And five days later, Larry Ryckman, a Calgary entrepreneur, paid $5 million to save the hometown Stampeders, who were about to go under.

Five million for a team about to fold? "I couldn't let the team go bankrupt and buy it for a dollar," Ryckman said. "I'm a resident. I had to step up and pay off all the creditors."

A year later, a community conglomerate took over the failing Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Comrie rescued the Lions. Together, these young turks got the league looking ahead.

"There's an old adage you buy at the bottom and sell at the top," said Ryckman, 38. "Bruce McNall is a friend of mine. I told him what was going on in Calgary, that the team was about to fold. We had a vision for expansion."

Ryckman said the league hadn't met the challenge when the NHL expanded into several CFL cities. "Football was the dominant sport in places like Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver," he said. "Once hockey came in, those teams didn't do a good job marketing to preserve their standing in those cities."

The new breed got the impetus it needed to expand when it fired Donald Crump and hired Larry Smith as commissioner in February 1992. A Montreal Alouette in the 1970s and a Canadian businessman in the 1980s, Smith recognized the gap between other pro leagues and the CFL.

"I wouldn't say [the CFL] was almost dead," Smith said. "I equate it to guys who are cowboys riding horses in the 1990s, and they don't realize everyone is driving cars. If not for the fact we had a great product, it probably would have been dead."

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