We love CFL to make NFL jealous

July 03, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Canadian Football League expanded to our city because of hate. There is no other way to put it.

The league needed a major American market to serve as the backbone of its bold plan to establish eight to 10 franchises in U.S. cities. It needed a major market that, for whatever reason, wouldn't dismiss the CFL as a minor league that played ridiculous football and wasn't worth following because it didn't compare to the NFL.

We were a perfect fit for one reason and one reason only.

We hate the NFL.

No city, large or small, hates the NFL like we do.

The CFL was smart, very smart, to come here.

We aren't going to sit around comparing them to the NFL. We're too busy hating the NFL.

We aren't going to sit around complaining that a CFL team is a poor substitute for an NFL team. The hell with the NFL.

Sure, we'd take the Frontiere Rams if they decided to come tomorrow. But there would be little celebration.

The cynical expansion process, the Colts' departure and now this latest ridiculousness over the Colts' name has turned us into certified hatemongers. For a time, we were just weary. Now, we hate. There were seething signs at Wednesday night's exhibition game at Memorial Stadium.

Meanwhile, for now, hate is the best thing the new team in town has going for it. For now, hate is great business.

Great box office.

Twenty-eight thousand people showed up to watch a team without a name play a meaningless game the other night. Why? For the same reason that the team's first regular-season game might sell out. For the same reason that the franchise sold some 25,000 season tickets even though most of the buyers couldn't name two players in the entire league or the nicknames of half the teams on the schedule.

They didn't buy tickets because they're eager to see Tracy Ham (he's our quarterback). They didn't buy tickets because they're wondering whether the Nippon Ham Fighters can repeat as champions. Right? Right. (Caught you! The Ham Fighters are a Japanese baseball team. The Edmonton Eskimos won the CFL title last year.)

No, they're buying tickets to CFL games because it is an outlet for frustration. Because it makes us feel that we're showing the NFL what it missed. (Even though the NFL doesn't care about anything that doesn't line its pockets and isn't paying us the slightest bit of attention.)

The court fight over the team name fit perfectly into the hate campaign. As petty as the NFL was to fight over the name (amazingly petty) and as satisfying as it would have been to beat them in court (very satisfying), losing was good for business, certainly in the short run. Losing only stoked the hate that is selling tickets and sustaining interest.

If Jim Speros is smart, he will keep appealing the court decision, even though he has little chance of winning and it would mean playing a season without a name. The more he loses in court, the more fans he picks up.

In the end, of course, it is going to take more than hate for the team to succeed here. You can't build a franchise on a foundation of hate. Hate sells just fine in the short run. But keeping such passion alive year after year is impossible.

In the end, the franchise is going to survive or fail on the intelligence with which it runs itself, on the salability of the CFL in America -- on the product, not the hate. Will fans buy the less physical brand of football? Will they settle for a game that has fewer big hits, but more points? Will they still show up when they get tired of hating? These are the long-range questions.

But the hate already has accomplished what the CFL wanted: gotten a team in the door in a major American market. Here in the city of the baseball monster, with the Orioles selling out every night and chasing the first-place Yankees, a foreign brand of minor-league football has succeeded in causing a commotion and building a support base. What were the chances of that?

One of these days, the team is going to have a name like the Lions or Tigers or Bears, oh my, and the old Colts players won't come around anymore for pre-game ceremonies, and Speros will target his ads at the teen-agers and college kids who are going to buy his tickets, not angry old fogeys with memories.

But until then, the new team in town is going to ride the wave of hate that is burning up the sidewalks in our town this summer. Ride that sucker as far as it will carry them. As we say in this country, whatever sells, right?

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