CFL steals NFL's stage as the best act in sports

October 07, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

It was a young front-office worker, now an old struggling newspaper reporter, who conceived a merchandising thrust for the Baltimore Colts that once drew national attention. The slogan proclaimed:

"Pro Football -- The Greatest Entertainment Buy In Sports Today."

What made it acceptable to the public is the quick and meaningful message it conveyed. There was no reason for advancing even a vague sort of argument. Such a thought wasn't challenged. Pro football was indeed an exceptional buy. It was all so true.

The National Football League in the 1950s was ascending toward record popularity and ticket prices were affordable to the working man, which made it a popular purchase. The game on the field was an exciting product, proving to be an undeniable magnet for customers.

In prior decades, pro football was perceived as some kind of a makeshift semipro operation. Players didn't believe they were anything special; owners were elated when a sportswriter showed up to talk with them. They only hoped he'd turn out a story and mention there was an upcoming game to be played and, yes, seats were still available.

The NFL has far surpassed the identity stage. It doesn't have to solicit acclaim or a following. Tickets are in demand. But to advance a contention that it's still the "greatest entertainment buy in sports today" is erroneous.

Admittedly, the NFL has achieved a high level of acceptability, according to the crowds, television ratings and surveys made by pollsters. It is, by far, the best football played on the North American continent, bar none.

NFL performers are stronger and faster, even if some linemen are so bulky they merely take up space, resembling a team of muscular weight-lifters wrestling each other for control of the scrimmage line.

The NFL has a gaudy reputation, which, of course, is to be conceded. But there's a thing called the Canadian Football League that is in the act of spoiling Baltimore.

From a pure entertainment standpoint, there's more to see at a CFL game than in the NFL. This may smack of heresy but it'll

hold up under scrutiny.

There's a chance to be bored watching the NFL, which has become all too predictable. The simple, basic truth is the CFL is more exciting than what the NFL offers its audiences. The NFL may disagree but it ought to take more CFL rules than merely adopting the two-point play and erecting the stem goal post that was invented in Canada.

The CFL of today is remindful of what the NFL used to be, before the coaches asserted more authority than they should be entitled to have. Certainly, what the fan gets in value received for his ticket money is an appealing aspect of the CFL. A good time is had by all. This is a well-kept secret and one America and even Canada have not fully discovered.

The CFL has kept its light hidden under a bushel for too many years. It's a superb show. Even such NFL general managers as Dick Steinberg and George Young representing, respectively, the New York Jets and Giants, agree it's a carnival of football thrills. They know the CFL's limitations but are aware of how the rapid flow of scoring fulfills the entertainment senses of the audience.

Players in the CFL are earning salaries water boys make in the NFL, where affluence and huge contracts have exceeded the realm of sound reasoning.

Baltimore would have again become an NFL stronghold if it had been awarded an expansion franchise, but it was passed over for Charlotte and Jacksonville. That's Jacksonville, Fla., not Jacksonville, Md.

The CFL embraced Baltimore in an effort to fill the void. It has found an ecstatic venue. The same can't be said for other expansion sites in the CFL, namely Las Vegas, Shreveport, La., and Sacramento, Calif. The CFL has to do better than that -- and it will.

Tonight, at Memorial Stadium, the Las Vegas Posse takes on the Baltimore CFLs in what promises to be a continuation of the kind of wide-open play that has been so pleasing. The CFL has a clinker or two along the way but so does the NFL.

One thing about the Baltimore crowds is that the gatherings are as enthusiastic as when the city was in the NFL -- charged up by the sideline cheerleading units and the in-the-stands exhortations of Leonard "The Big Wheel" Burrier. A major difference is in the age of the spectators. They are young, with only a small percentage of the old Colts' faithful present.

This bodes well for the future. The CFLs are creating a constituency. Tickets to see the NFL Colts in their glory years of accomplishment were in such demand that generations were unable to gain admission. That's not true with the CFL. It's pioneering a different game in the United States -- one that can now be called, without contradiction in the current era, "the greatest entertainment buy in sports today."

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