The Canadian Game

July 02, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

The hardest part of Canadian football to take is the season.

To avoid the Edmonton winter, they are butting heads in the Baltimore summer.

Will players stand for this? More important, will fans?

The introduction of the Canadian Football League to Baltimore threatens to break the National Football League monopoly on professional football in this country.

That is what is so interesting about the Baltimore CFLs, unless you also happen to like the game.

The NFL was given every opportunity not to allow this to happen. The city and state begged the NFL to avoid it. But the NFL absolutely insisted on this course of events.

Although NFL owners are generally portrayed as atavistic oafs incapable of sensing beyond their immediate appetites, the decision to spurn a return to Baltimore was couched in rational, cool, managerial, long-range planning terms.

Something about what the Baltimore market will be in 30 years compared to Charlotte and Jacksonville, and rural television markets. This rose above sentiment, tradition and market history -- the stuff of box-office receipts.

And it was nutty. Owner Jim Speros with his finite resources saw the opening the NFL handed to him and busted through.

The breathless anticipation that was whipped up for an NFL franchise rekindled hope, despair, disgust, anger, resentment and ardent desire on the part of Baltimore's football faithful. Rejected yet again, they were ready to reciprocate to any league that coveted them.

This could be the CFL's full-fledged entree into the American football market. It could start the transformation of the Canadian Football League into the North American Football League.

(''North American'' is a Canadian term meaning U.S. and Canadian combined. Now that NAFTA exists, Canadians must learn that Mexico is North American, too, but that will take time. The CFL failed in Montreal, which many Canadians believe is not North American).

The CFL played in Sacramento last season without shaking NFL franchises of California in the slightest. Now it is opening in Shreveport and Las Vegas as well as Baltimore.

The league is thinking too small with Sacramento and Shreveport. They reinforce the image of the CFL as minor league, paying less than the NFL does for players the NFL rejects.

Las Vegas may be major league. But where other franchises depend on season tickets and corporate boxes, Las Vegas will depend uniquely on transients loyal to someplace else.

Baltimore is the one undoubted major league U.S. market the CFL entered. Baltimore is the supreme test, with recent history stacked in the CFL's favor here.

Owner Speros is playing the Colts name game brilliantly to gain maximum fan sympathy from the NFL legal sharks and a Hoosier federal judge. Whatever the outcome in court, the Baltimore CFLs win at the box office.

If the CFL catches on in Baltimore, other markets are available. New York, for instance. (NFL teams with New York in front of their names actually play in New Jersey.) Central Connecticut.

If Jack Kent Cooke is reckless enough to move his Washington Redskins to Laurel, RFK Stadium in Washington will become available. What an ideal spot to create a new Baltimore-Washington rivalry.

There are, however, obstacles to the success of the CFL here. One is the difference between the Canadian and American games. Dyed-in-the-wool football fans are not the world's most adaptable people.

The timing is exquisitely wrong. What if the World Cup finally hooked Americans to soccer this month, with a new league and Washington team about to debut?

It is also unfortunate that one of the immortals of football is just now charged with the ghoulish murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Traits long admired on the gridiron will be used to explain crime. Football may finally suffer in public esteem as contrived brutality.

Let us hope not. CFL success here would be wonderful for Baltimore.

So would a local college basketball team in the Big East conference, a new arena and a National League baseball team in Washington.

The last is the most important. Without a Washington baseball team, you will never be able to walk up to the Camden Yards window and buy tickets on no notice.

To be unable to do so is un-American. No, it is un-North American.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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