CFLs' first home run is real joy

November 11, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

What has been one of the most surprisingly enjoyable football adventures Baltimore ever experienced is proceeding to its final stages. It could all come to a cheering halt. From the perspective of the spectator, the strong possibility exists that this is it.

Baltimore's first Canadian Football League season is counting down to its inevitable conclusion. For the home activity to continue after tomorrow, the Baltimore CFLs have to win and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers must lose, which is a daily-double ticket that's going to be tough to cash.

Baltimore currently has to deal directly with the Toronto Argonauts, one of the oldest franchises in all of sports, in a playoff tomorrow at Memorial Stadium. They split during the regular schedule. If Baltimore wins, it goes on to Winnipeg next Saturday. The only scenario -- an improbable one -- that would allow Baltimore to have another home date is for Winnipeg to bow to the Ottawa Rough Riders tomorrow while an improving Toronto team is eliminated.

Quite likely, Baltimore will be on the road the rest of the way. But first it has to train its attentions on Toronto and forget about decrying what happened last Saturday night when it held its own destiny and fumbled it away in the rains of Sacramento.

When the gun sounds in the early evening hours tomorrow, regardless of the result, there should be a concerted awareness of what the CFLs have achieved. The audience may want to come to its feet to offer a standing ovation to a team that created momentous excitement -- contrary to the erroneously perceived impression among the uninitiated that what was being served was an inferior brand of foreign football.

It was so good from purely an entertainment viewpoint that the National Football League in this aspect pales by comparison. The Canadian game is faster, more wide open and higher scoring. The NFL, with one team resembling another, courtesy of the boring coaches and their situation substitutions, has a higher profile and, of course, more acceptability.

The birth of this fledgling franchise didn't occur until mid-February. Some amazing things have happened. Owner Jim Speros made all the right moves, starting with the hiring of Don Matthews as coach and director of football operations. Matthews, in turn, brought personnel director Jim Popp with him for what has functioned as a winning combination.

Most everything else broke right for Speros. The luck factor has been on his side. His team met with outstanding weather (it rained at only one home game), a constituency that wanted to like him and his team. The Colts' Band was ready-made and already marching before Speros got here. The ticket prices he posted were affordable.

Meanwhile, Speros was the beneficiary of the public venting its anger at the NFL for (1) allowing the Colts to flee the city in 1984 and (2) rejecting Baltimore's expansion bid last year, even preferring Jacksonville. Speros didn't create the animosity Baltimore expressed for the NFL but he was able to take advantage of it.

Then when commissioner Paul Tagliabue's legal forces took him to court to make Speros stop using the name Colts, which had belonged to Baltimore long before the city even joined the NFL, it became a crusade to defy the court decision. The fans still boomed C-O-L-T-S in their cheers. Speros was able to "play off" the anti-NFL attitude that prevailed.

The CFLs created a different audience, primarily a young gathering, than what the former Colts attracted. It's important for the CFL, speaking objectively, to make moves to new American cities and have its games televised by a major network. Having Las Vegas, Sacramento and Shreveport instead of Milwaukee, Memphis and San Antonio has been a mistake. But it can be

corrected.

Don't forget Oakland and Orlando. Both have the facilities to present the games in a first-rate fashion. Speros also has had to live with constant reference that an NFL club may transfer to Baltimore. This has, without question, denied him more acceptability. If the NFL should come to Baltimore then the CFL is going to be damaged. It would be impossible to co-exist.

Some cynics, being facetious, have said the CFL in Baltimore is just another test-market survey for the NFL to watch and observe -- as if this city needed to prove itself to anyone. So, in reality, the team, the CFL and its commissioner, Larry Smith, have provided Baltimore with a highly appealing game.

Maybe next year, the CFL should consider playing some Sunday afternoon games in Baltimore, even if it conflicts with NFL television. Such an experiment should be tried, if for no other reason than to see what happens. The playoff with Toronto tomorrow may attract a crowd in the range of 35,000 but it's not expected to reach 40,000 -- unless there's a late surge at the box office.

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