With Smith calling signals, CFL never far from goal line

July 15, 1994|By John Steadman

Being commissioner of a sport he once played at the professional level, combined with extraordinary business leadership and legal background, sets Larry Smith apart. He has all the prerequisites, plus the personality, to continue bringing new and favorable attention to the Canadian Football League.

Not enough emphasis can be placed on the importance of Smith's presence as the official signal-caller for the CFL, an organization that has been around for 101 years and is looking for new venues of operation -- including a future in New York and Chicago. His dream is for the CFL to become an American football alternative while still holding to its traditional Canadian values, including some of its original rules and concept.

"If and when we go there, to New York and Chicago, we can't fail, the same as we can't fail in Baltimore," he said.

There's no timetable for expansion, except next year may find two or four new U.S. teams entering the CFL. Smith says 32 groups in 10 cities express interest in joining -- an application process he feels will shake down to "five or six strong contenders."

What about exposing the game via the Columbia Broadcasting System, the television network that played an important role in the growth of the National Football League, now that it has lost its identity with helmets and pads on Sunday afternoons?

"We had one formal meeting with CBS, back in January," answered Smith. "I believe CBS is studying developments. I realize having Baltimore in the CFL is extremely important. In a way it's like ringing the Liberty Bell in America. It sends a message. I was dubious when Jim Speros, who put the team in Baltimore, told me he was interested in a franchise. I honestly thought the NFL would go back."

When that didn't happen, Speros seized on the opportunity to fill a void. Smith, meanwhile, has been an interested spectator to Speros' desire to call his team the Baltimore CFL Colts. The reaction of the obstinate NFL, which had nothing to do with originating the name Colts since it was used for three years when Baltimore was in the All-America Football Conference, also has drawn his attention.

His explanation of the ongoing controversy gives insight to how Smith analytically deciphers the clamorous tug-of-war.

"I don't view the name challenge as the CFL vs. the NFL," Smith said. "And it's not me against Paul Tagliabue [the NFL commissioner], nor is it Jim Speros vs. Bob Irsay. The Colts name, since it was created in Baltimore, is the fans' property. We are a fan-driven business. You can't forget the customer."

That's precisely the way it should be, except the NFL, by its actions, has become selfish and dictatorial. The CFL poses no threat because if the NFL doesn't want to go back to Baltimore, St. Louis and Oakland, plus San Antonio, Memphis and Nashville, then the CFL is free to do so. After all, we're told America is an open marketplace.

Smith also has a desire to see a team return to Montreal, where he played for nine years before becoming an executive with Labatt Ltd., which provided him later entree to his CFL appointment. He obviously wasn't a running back who knocked his brains out. He has a business degree from Bishop's University and a law degree from McGill University, which means he didn't ride to the commissioner's job on a hay wagon or a load of coal.

He's concerned about dealing with the players association and implementing a salary cap or "we'll be out of business." He believes, though, such problems are more acute in the NFL and the National Hockey League.

"When expenses surpass revenues, you're in trouble," he said. "For instance, revenues might be up 100 percent but salaries show 1,000 percent increase."

Smith knows the import rule in Canada, which now restricts each club to only 17 Americans, is eventually going to have to change.

"Put it this way," he said. "I think the ratio of Americans per team is going to be modified. I don't know by how much but to some degree."

Asked to outline his CFL goals, the commissioner specified: "To continue to expand in the U.S. and also dealing, of course, with the Montreal situation; to enlarge our television audience in the States and in Canada; to continue building media relations, which have given us tremendous new exposure, including USA Today, which for the first time assigned a reporter to cover us. We also want to do more with our sponsorships and licensing."

Smith will attend the CFL Hall of Fame ceremony tomorrow in Hamilton, Ontario, and then fly to Baltimore, only hours later, to watch the Saturday night opener with the Calgary Stampeders -- a team that carries one of the most distinctive nicknames in all of sports. It is premature to canonize Larry Smith as the greatest thing ever to happen to the Canadian Football League, but it's doubtful if any other individual has made such a notable difference.

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