CFL cashes in as NFL scales down salaries

July 21, 1994|By BILL TANTON

It was just a small item in the sports pages yesterday: Joey Browner, longtime National Football Leaguer, signed by the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League.

But it was a portent of a significant development in pro football, American and Canadian style.

Browner was six times an NFL Pro Bowl strong safety as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.

Now he finds himself in the same situation as a lot of veteran NFL players -- still good enough to play in the league, but too expensive to fit into its new salary cap (see: Phil Simms, New York Giants).

So Browner, a former Southern Cal star, will be playing his football for the Rough Riders this year. We'll see him in Baltimore Oct. 1 when Ottawa meets our own CFLers.

We'll see a Browner well before that, however. Joey's brother, Keith, will play against Baltimore here this Saturday night. He's an offensive lineman for the Shreveport Pirates -- and if the Pittsburgh Pirates don't like having this CFL expansion team use their name, let 'em take it up with the Browner brothers.

Well before Joey Browner went to Canada, Baltimore team owner Jim Speros predicted we would be seeing more border crossings.

"The NFL salaries are going down because of their new salary cap," Speros said the other day at J. Patrick's, "and the CFL salaries are going up.

"Our players average around $50,000. If we can get our guys up to around $150,000 while the NFL salaries are coming down, you'll see a lot of players switching leagues. You'll see a great product in the CFL."

Speros may be young -- he's 35 -- but there's nothing naive about him when it comes to pro football.

He was an assistant coach under Joe Gibbs when the Washington Redskins went to back-to-back Super Bowls a decade ago. He understands the facts of life in the NFL.

There's no question that the NFL has better players than the CFL. No one argues with that.

The NFL has a salary cap of $34.6 million per team. The CFL cap is $2 million -- and that's in Canadian dollars.

The best players are going to go where the money is, although Calgary's Doug Flutie, who put on a clinic here last Saturday night, earns a cool $1 million.

Speros, like any good businessman, is looking to the future. So are his fellow owners, or governors as they're called in Canada.

"How we do this year," said Speros, "will determine how this league does in the future."

Everyone knows the CFL will benefit as it picks up more NFL salary cap victims.

Speros realizes that the success his team is having -- already leading the CFL in attendance by a wide margin -- will encourage other American cities to join the league.

That's the goal of CFL commissioner Larry Smith, who wants to (( see the league grow to 16 or 20 teams (from the present 12) by the year 2000.

Smith and Speros hope to see four more American cities join Baltimore, Shreveport, Las Vegas and Sacramento. "I'd like to see it called the North American League," Speros said.

How would the Canadians feel about giving up their national name, since their league is even older than the NFL?

"Hey, if TV comes in with a $200 million contract," Speros said, "they'll tell us what the league is going to be called."

TV should like the CFL game. It's faster than the NFL's. It's more action-packed. But then a lot of people have been complaining for years about the dull NFL product with all its field goals.

Baltimore City lent Speros $500,000, which he put to excellent use in spiffying up Memorial Stadium. Many who have been there to watch the CFLs were dazzled to see how much better the place looks than it did a year ago for the Baysox.

Speros and his minority partner, ex-Colt Tom Matte, are disappointed in the lack of support from the state. They attribute that to the fact that Governor Schaefer is still trying, through Peter Angelos, to bring an NFL team to Baltimore.

"The governor," said Matte, "is in LaLa Land. I joined forces with Jim Speros only after there was no hope of getting an NFL franchise here."

"Memorial Stadium is so under-used," said Speros. "The state should put some money into it and it could be used for more events and generate tax money for the state.

"I'm a young guy and I've got a lot of energy. I just get a little upset when people don't see how good this is for Baltimore."

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