CFL's invasion of U.S. markets just kicking off

July 24, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

They played another Canadian Football League game at Memorial Stadium last night, but no one sang "O Canada." Granted, Baltimore is in Maryland, not Newfoundland, and Shreveport is in Louisiana, not Nova Scotia. But how quickly people forget.

Think Baltimore put a team on the field quickly? Wait until you see how rapidly the CFL continues its American expansion. Baltimore owner Jim Speros envisions a 24-team league by the )) year 2000, with as many as 16 in the United States, all because of the . . .

Say it! Say it! Say it!

COLTS!

In Las Vegas, they can't even get "O Canada" straight. In Baltimore, the fans already are bi-lingual. When a Shreveport player failed to run a missed field goal out of his own end zone last night, the stadium came alive with low, rumbling cries of "Rouge! Rouge!"

One measly point for the CFLs, one giant step for the crowd of 31,172. Bring on Winnipeg. Bring back Calgary. With last night's 40-24 victory over expansion rival Shreveport, the CFLs (2-1) own a higher winning percentage than the Orioles.

Even better, Baltimore boasts the two highest attendances in the CFL this season -- and the three largest, if you include the preseason game against Winnipeg. Either we're at the epicenter of the CFL earthquake, or we're just plain nuts.

Uh, no comment.

Thirty thousand for Shreveport, a team featuring Uzo Okeka and Bjorn Nittmo, a team that fired its coach a week before its first preseason game, a team that misspelled "inaugural" not once, but twice on the cover of its yearbook.

Innaugural.

Must be a Cajun thing.

Seriously, it's a good thing this wacky league is taking hold in Charm City, because if the CFL can't make it here, it can't make it anywhere. "I feel a lot more pressure," owner Jim Speros said. "The league is looking to me -- as I go, the league goes, as far as expansion."

And as expansion goes, so goes a major TV contract. The CFL on CBS is the ultimate goal, but probably unrealistic. Speros said Liberty Sports, a national syndicator and regional cable sports operator, is "very, very interested" in the CFL. That would be a start.

Liberty would become a "strategic partner" in the CFL, Speros said, making a financial commitment in return for scheduling control. For the sake of TV, the CFL will change its name, change its rules, change its season, sell its soul.

Which, of course, is the way to go.

PTC The league figures that if Speros succeeds, other U.S. cities will clamor for membership and try to duplicate the Baltimore experience. It's an ambitious plan, perhaps blindly ambitious. There is no duplicating the Baltimore experience -- ask anyone who saw "Diner."

Our pro football history is singular, from The Greatest Game Ever Played to the historic loss in Super Bowl III to the Colts leaving in the dead of night. The failure to land an NFL expansion team, the lawsuit over the Colts name -- it all plays right into Speros' hands.

Still, the owner is smart -- smart enough to field a competitive team, smart enough to put 16 of his 20 games on local TV. Speros figured that even if last night's telecast cost him a few thousand fans, there were a half-million more in Ocean City, catching the fever on Channel 2.

He wants to put 50,000 in the stadium, and his next target is the corporate community. Speros speaks of "another 10,000 season tickets that I've got to get my hands on." Five months ago, the guy had nothing. Who's to count him out?

CFL commissioner Larry Smith said Baltimore could send a "shock wave" through the United States. It's more like a faint ripple, but Speros talks of a four-team U.S. expansion next season -- two NFL losers (St. Louis? Oakland? Memphis?) and two pro football wanna-bes (Orlando? Birmingham? San Antonio?)

Interesting possibilities.

But no Baltimores.

The histories in St. Louis and Oakland are comparable, but neither city can match our passion. Memphis once supported the USFL, and was an NFL expansion finalist. Birmingham was another USFL "hotbed." Orlando and San Antonio also were in the league, but so what?

.2l Then there are the Canadian cities. For 102 years, they haven't taken the CFL seriously -- Montreal doesn't even have a team. But Smith believes Baltimore can change all that. Call it the John Candy syndrome -- the comedian became popular in his native Canada only after achieving U.S. success.

"Sometimes we have a tendency to look south of the border for validation," Smith said. "We've got to take more initiative. We've been regulated and protected for 100 years. Now, with free trade . . . you can open it up and compete. And once you start believing you can compete, you're there."

In other words, Baltimore isn't just saving the CFL, it's saving an entire nation.

Who needs the NFL?

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