CFL bandwagon fills fast with Colts aboard

April 19, 1994|By John Steadman

How much importance is attached to Baltimore's entry into the Canadian Football League can be measured via the comments of the commissioner, one Larry Smith, who says the reaction was so overwhelming that representatives from 22 other cities called almost immediately to inquire about the criteria for making application and gaining acceptance.

So Baltimore now, in reality, has become an attention-getting billboard for the CFL, a catalyst to its future growth. What happens to the Baltimore (CFL) Colts in the season ahead, as to the way the franchise is operated and public response, will determine the degree of appeal in other places across the country.

If the CFL clicks in Baltimore, which was a 35-year stronghold for American professional football until the team owner stole away at midnight a decade ago, then the demand to climb on the bandwagon will increase immeasurably.

"Let me explain it this way," said the commissioner. "Before we announced the decision to come to Baltimore, we were talking to 10 groups in various cities. Then, overnight, it went to 32. And that was attributable to Baltimore joining our league."

So 22 additional cities became interested in the CFL after Baltimore made the move. Shreveport, La., and Las Vegas also are in the 1994 U.S. expansion, plus Sacramento, Calif., which joined last season. "I said it might create a shock wave, when we got Baltimore," continued Smith. "That's exactly what happened."

The Smith plan to enlarge the CFL, which has been in business 102 years (which means it pre-dates the NFL by 27 years) will continue. He recommends four more U.S. sites for 1995 and adds, "we'd like to take a look at Orlando, Memphis, St. Louis and some other places."

Yes, but specifically how about San Antonio, Nashville, Milwaukee and Portland? Smith smiled and joked, "Maybe we need a sportswriter on our expansion committee."

All those other locations are under consideration. Two more franchises would be awarded in 1996 and, of course, a decision needs to be made regarding Montreal.

The majestic Canadian metropolis and its CFL entry fell on hard times so Montreal is on the sidelines waiting for a fitting moment to return. "We're working on that situation now," clarified the commissioner. "It's a case of proper timing."

Smith and Jim Speros, owner of the CFL Colts, contend there will be no shortage of players. "We're not growing too fast," Smith insisted. "There's a plethora of playing talent. It takes different skill factors to play in the NFL and CFL. Consider how many young men are playing college football in this country and how few jobs the NFL has available."

The fact Canada originated the league is an important consideration. After all the CFL is one of the oldest of sports leagues. And the cities of the dominion, especially the old Canadian "Big Four," constituting Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Montreal, created their own football traditions.

It was Smith who took the ball and ran with it, headed for the U.S. border and made sales calls in Sacramento, Baltimore, Las Vegas and Shreveport. There's more to come.

How has the typical Canadian reacted to the action? What used to be the exclusivity of the provinces, the CFL, has spread to the states, much like migrating hockey players.

"Well," answered Smith, "ticket sales are up everywhere in Canada. When business is down you have to look to other alternatives. That's why we came to the States, to spread our base of operation and give U.S. fans another pro football option. You've got to spice up your product."

Spoken like a man with a background in the bakery business, where Smith spent 10 years as the chief executive of the frozen bake goods division of Labatt's Ltd. "That's right," he quipped, "put a little more yeast in it."

Smith is an impressive figure. He's well-educated, having degrees in both business and law, is articulate and understands the game as only an ex-player can. He's imaginative, and, as a light jab at the NFL, couldn't resist telling a luncheon audience yesterday at Martin's West, "It's great to see the innovations we started 20 years ago being adopted by the NFL."

Reference is to the numerous rule changes the NFL has newly approved to open up its game, many of them procedures that have been in vogue in the CFL for decades.

Baltimore's role in the future of the Canadian Football League, as incongruous as it may seem, geographically anyhow, is vital to a venerable old league with a young boss and his ideas for progress.

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