Smith boldly delivers Grey Cup is CBS pact next?

August 11, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Awarding the Canadian Football League championship, known as the Grey Cup, which is almost three times older than the Super Bowl, to a U.S. city is another triumph for Larry Smith, the boyish-looking commissioner who was bold enough to gamble that the public is ready to accept a flamboyant version of a sport that heretofore has been foreign to the ways of America.

Baltimore will play host to the event on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1997. Three former players -- commissioner Smith, Mayor Kurt Schmoke and host team owner Jim Speros -- made an appearance in the middle of Memorial Stadium last night during halftime and displayed the huge Sterling silver Grey Cup for the crowd of 37,231 to see.

The audience greeted the announcement with an appreciative roar of approval. Taking the game out of Canada, where it has been a fixture since 1909, is another daring move by Smith, who realizes the CFL must make changes and is pioneering an ambitious expansion program to showcase a sport that features innate excitement.

To gain the Grey Cup attraction, Baltimore had to guarantee ticket sales of $3.1 million (in U.S. dollars), plus offera percentage based on the crowd size that could add another $600,000 to the CFL's part of the deal.

It's an unprecedented action that demonstrates what Smith and the CFL think of Baltimore, a city that is a success in its early exposure to a game replete with flying footballs and wide-open play. The Grey Cup may carry an impact of $40 million from visitors who will be here for almost a lead-in week of festivities and parties that never shut down. It's around-the-clock celebrating, even dancing in the street, at what resembles the hoopla of a Shriner's Convention.

If the projection of tourist dollars is realized, the economy will be far more enhanced than what any football game has ever meant to Baltimore, including the 1959 Baltimore Colts-New York Giants title showdown and the long series of Notre Dame appearances against Navy. They were one-day outings. The Grey Cup is a five- to seven-day blast.

Smith appeased the traditionalist movement in Canada by seeing that Hamilton hosts the 1996 Grey Cup. Mayor Schmoke is elated to take the game a year later because it will be a part of Baltimore's bicentennial that is to be celebrated in '97. So the Grey Cup is now a certainty.

Of significance, too, is the word that CBS officials are taking a serious look at the CFL with the possibility it may want to sign a contract to televise its games. When Smith was asked to confirm if CBS executives were in Baltimore for the July 23 duel with the Shreveport Pirates, he refused to answer and seemed uncomfortable to be quizzed about the matter.

Pressed for clarification, all he would say was a reluctant "no comment."

If CBS, devoid of pro football after a 39-year association with the NFL, established a relationship with the CFL, it would do much to assure a wide U.S. acceptance for the Canadian game.

The Liberty Network also is interested in a deal for cable TV and was represented here by a consultant, Dave Dixon, one of the country's leading sports entrepreneurs.

It has been learned the CFL has been in St. Louis and had talks with Anheuser-Busch about locating there. Smith, again, wouldn't touch a subject he must believe is sensitive.

What about such leading cities as New York and Chicago? Smith explained before that could happen he would want to be certain "major markets of that stature would be ready to receive the CFL with a high degree of acceptance."

He knows the league can't go to either place and risk failure. San Antonio, Oakland and Memphis also are being considered for next year's CFL expansion that Smith hopes will include two or four new teams.

Will Las Vegas and Shreveport, new to the CFL, make the grade? "Shreveport will click," Smith insisted. "As for Las Vegas, met with some of its civic leaders and there's great enthusiasm. I visited there, talked to people on the street and sat in the stands at a game to sample opinion. What we will do is schedule heavily late in the season to get away from the intense heat of summer. That can be done."

So, at this stage, there's no indication the CFL will bail out on Las Vegas or Shreveport if attendance doesn't climb. The story on Baltimore in Sports Illustrated last month brought what Smith called "tremendous recognition throughout Canada and from U.S. cities that hope to join us."

But if CBS aligns with the CFL, following placement of a Grey Cup in America, it would be a dream come true for Smith. It also would be the most significant development to hit Canadian football in its more than century-old history.

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