Southern exposure seen as key for CFL

November 01, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

His team has made the quantum leap from drawing board to Grey Cup contender in less than nine months.

Now, Jim Speros, managing general partner of the Baltimore CFLs, wants the league to take a giant step toward becoming a more viable product in the United States.

That probably means changing the name of the league. It may mean Americanizing some rules and perhaps the dimensions of the playing field. And in the long run, it means having American and Canadian divisions with more geographic rivalries.

Those points were among possible changes discussed at the league's board of governors meeting last week in Toronto.

"The Canadian Football League as we know it is over," Speros said. "It's got to be an international league between two countries.

"We are starting a new league in the U.S. The CFL in the U.S. is only 2 years old. I want this league at some point in time to rival the NFL. I want to get the league to the next level. I'm not happy where the league is now.

"We're not being embraced by the CFL. We don't have any identity. We're not maximizing our potential."

The identity crisis is apparent in the United States, where two of four expansion franchises must relocate before next season. The Sacramento Gold Miners, playing in a bandbox stadium, and the Las Vegas Posse, playing in a vacuum, succumbed to lack of acceptance.

The crisis is equally evident north of the border, where long-standing franchises in Hamilton and Ottawa are faced with severe financial hardship and other clubs with a lesser degree of fiscal woe.

While conceding that the league has its share of problems, commissioner Larry Smith says that a stronger bottom line is around the corner. But first, he said, the CFL must do some pruning.

"There may be a small consolidation process," Smith said. "Consolidation could mean less Canadian, more American cities. not going to collapse. We're not going to disappear."

The implication is that one or more of the struggling Canadian franchises could be relocated in the United States. The league expects to expand from 12 to between 14 and 16 clubs next season.

The prospective U.S. sites include Birmingham, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; San Antonio; Oakland, Calif., and Orlando, Fla.

But that is only part of the Americanization Speros would like to see.

"I feel strongly our league will have a complete new image, a new face, for next year," Speros said. "We've got to change the name of the league to reflect the American partner."

The league's marketing committee, of which Speros is a member, will study the options. Among the names discussed at last week's meeting were International Football League, Canadian-American Football League and North American Football League. Unacceptable was Continental Football League because of its connection to a minor league in the United States in the 1960s.

Whether the Canadians will accept the name change is unclear. But Bill Comrie, owner of the B.C. Lions and chairman of the league's executive committee, said the owners were open to the idea.

"If they had said an absolute no, it wouldn't have been sent to the marketing committee to study," Comrie said.

Possible rules changes and altering the playing field also were debated. Speros said he does not like the rule that awards a point for a missed field-goal try, for example. And he wants a uniform playing field, which the league doesn't have this year. Its 20-yard end zones were 15 yards in Las Vegas.

"All venues should be the same size," Speros said. "If not everyone can have 20-yard end zones, they all should be 15 yards. And if not every field can be 65 yards wide, I'm in favor of making them 60 yards."

All of this comes under the heading of making the CFL a more inviting product for the U.S. television networks. The success of American expansion ultimately rests with a U.S. television contract, even if it means sacrifices such as a season that stretches into mid-December.

"The TV people brought it up," Speros said. "For TV purposes, they need to fill up their December menu before the bowls start. If we move the season back two weeks, there's a better chance to fill the gaps. We've got to be flexible."

Even with arctic weather conditions that arrive in late November in the northern Canadian outposts?

"It's a concern," Speros said.

After two years of trial and mostly error, Gold Miners owner Fred Anderson said the league has learned from its mistakes.

"With the learning curve behind us, we won't have any more Las Vegases, or any more Sacramentos without a proper facility," Anderson said. "After a year of floundering, I think the league has found some direction."

Speros sees opportunity.

"We're at a crossroads now," he said. "We have a chance to bring in several teams over the next few years to form an international league. If we blow this opportunity, somebody else will take advantage of it."

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