It's not exactly the NFL, this league Cash-poor Canadian teams pin hopes on likes of Baltimore

August 21, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

All things considered, the Saskatchewan Roughriders had a pretty good season last year.

The Canadian Football League team, based in Regina, an outpost on Canada's western frontier, went 11-7 and made it to the semifinals. Five players were named all-stars and a single-game attendance record of 33,032 was set at Taylor Field.

But none of that is a ticket to financial stability in the CFL, a league that for each of the past 10 years seemed on the verge of delivering the last rites with its Grey Cup championship trophy.

To balance their books, the Roughriders had to get creative.

There was the Women's Night dinner where players modeled bathing suits. And the annual Plaza of Honor Induction Dinner where no one, not even the team president, got in without paying the $250 a plate contribution. Then there was the $100-a-ticket lottery.

The fund-raisers put the team into the black for the third time in five years, and made it one of only two CFL clubs to make money last year, according to the team's president. But the $109,000 profit barely dented the Roughriders' $2 million accumulated deficit.

Such is life in a folksy league that, although 27 years older than the National Football League, makes less from its TV contracts than some NFL teams earn through sales of beer, hot dogs and stadium ads. The CFL has gambled that expansion to the United States will bring financial stability, but it is a high-risk strategy that could backfire.

So far the only clear success has been Baltimore, which leads the league in attendance. But its energy has yet to spread to the other teams.

"I think we saw something had to be done," said John Lipp, president of the community-owned Roughriders and a Regina City Councilman.

"We had reached the point where the league had lost some excitement," he said. "One thing we could do was add new teams.

"When we made the decision to expand, we knew we'd never be the same, whether it's in the long term for the good or for our demise. It could go either way."

The 102-year-old CFL seemed on the verge of a long-predicted collapse before it expanded to the United States in 1993. During the past decade, average game attendance has fallen 11 percent and network TV revenues have been cut in half.

In response, the league has changed commissioners three times, playoff format four times and the size or composition of player rosters three times. It has also charged member teams millions of dollars to bail out the most troubled franchises.

Meanwhile, clubs have been changing owners faster than quarterbacks. In the years immediately preceding expansion, five of the CFL's nine teams were sold, some more than once. Two, Ottawa and British Columbia, briefly were taken over by the league to keep them afloat.

Big cities have trouble

Oddly, the largest cities -- generally the hottest markets for sports teams -- have been the coolest to the CFL. The Toronto Argonauts, playing in the CFL's biggest city, have their fourth owner since 1988, and their per-game attendance is next to last among the clubs this year. The team in Montreal, the CFL's ancestral homeland and Canada's second-largest city, went out of business in 1987 and hasn't been replaced.

"You walk to the water cooler on Monday morning, and there seems to be more discussion of the NFL than the CFL," said Robert Wanzel, a professor and former director of the sports management program at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.

"Now the parties are on Super Bowl Sunday, not Grey Cup Sunday," Mr. Wanzel said.

The CFL's television ratings reflect its decline. Although the Grey Cup still attracts a strong following in Canada -- larger than the Super Bowl -- it ranked below the Toronto-Philadelphia World Series and the Vancouver-New York Stanley Cup Finals.

Worse, the NFL often wins head-to-head ratings contests, said Maria Tassone, a spokeswoman for the Global Television Network, an Ontario broadcaster that carries some NFL games, including the Super Bowl. "It's a glitzier version of football," she said.

No wonder, then, that team owners aimed for the world's richest sports market, the United States. If it works, supporters say, the strategy could catapult the sport to major-league status, on par with the NHL, NBA, baseball and even the NFL.

But if it fails, the CFL could be forced out of business.

CFL Commissioner Larry Smith scoffs at the notion that it was expand or die for the CFL and sees a bright future.

Mr. Smith, a passionate supporter of expansion, says the new teams have brought excitement and savvy investors -- not to mention millions of dollars in expansion fees -- to the game.

So far, reaction has been mixed. An average of 20,203 fans turned out for the first 36 games of the season, about 10 percent fewer than during the same period last season.

Among the weakest performers: teams in Las Vegas and Sacramento, with average game attendance of 11,025 and 14,822, ranking them 12th and ninth in the 12-game league. Shreveport, La., at 18,689, ranks seventh.

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