Baltimore helps solidify Smith's U.S. game plan

November 14, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

How the Canadian Football League has been accepted in Baltimore -- to a point of being cited as a model for other future expansion sites to emulate -- has given reason for the commissioner, Larry Smith, to strengthen his desire to immediately implement the process of adding other American cities.

Memphis, San Antonio and Oakland have attracted attention -- with Birmingham, Milwaukee and Orlando also included. Any of those six, or combination thereof, would add luster to the CFL, which has been in business for 101 years. It wasn't until Smith assumed command that new venues in the United States started to be developed.

Smith, visiting Baltimore this weekend, and seeing the CFL team advance to next Sunday's divisional playoff in Winnipeg, praised the owner, Jim Speros, coach Don Matthews and Mayor Kurt Schmoke for making it happen. The CFL leader says he's not worried about reports that individuals in Toronto are interested in joining the National Football League.

He has his own game plan and says, "Personally, I enjoy great satisfaction over what has happened in Baltimore. In Canada, we came close to becoming a dinosaur. Unfortunately, the CFL wasn't being managed properly. We had to look to new horizons, developing ideas."

Smith was forced to run with the ball. He insisted a move of the CFL into the U.S.A. was going to be productive. Such a decision would give it a chance to fulfill the potential of a form of football that, although lacking prestige and acceptability, is far more entertaining than what the NFL offers.

"There's no question that Baltimore created a shock wave across two countries," he remarked. "If we ever go into New York or Los Angeles, the Baltimore experience will have been responsible, historically, for the CFL reaching the heights it deserves. We were asked to delay coming to Baltimore last December and January while the city tried to get in the NFL.

"It meant we didn't get started until mid-February. But Baltimore has showed, even in that short space of time, that if things are done right, like getting the right owner and coach, plus establishing a good rapport with the political leadership, in this case Mayor Schmoke, that a team can be a success in its first year."

Smith, a Canadian who played nine seasons with the Montreal Alouettes, has degrees in business and law. He's the only commissioner of a major-league sport who was actually an athlete, which provides him with an understanding of the game, plus the people playing and coaching in it.

"I believe Baltimore wanted its own team and not one from someplace else," Smith said. "It shows that if the mix is right you don't have to wait 10 years. Baltimore has built a winner from the start. It puts pressure on the organization to keep meeting high standards. But this is positive pressure. Some cities talking about joining the CFL say they don't want a relocated franchise. They want their own and point to Baltimore."

The natural question, but not an easy one for Smith, concerns why some Canadian cities are apathetic toward their own game. Smith offered a blunt explanation, which is an insight into the psyche of the Dominion.

"The hardest thing for a Canadian to recognize is what they have is good," he said. "Rightly or wrongly, if the States have it, then it's considered better."

This would lead an American citizen to believe our friendly neighbors to the north have something of an inferiority complex. Too bad.

Some Canadians, no doubt, are even surprised their style of football is winning a U.S. audience and earning applause.

Smith wants two expansion teams to be organized in the U.S. for 1995 and also is looking at transferring the Las Vegas club to either San Antonio or Birmingham.

The import rule, where Canadian teams can only use 17 Americans, will have to be adjusted. "Only 24 universities play football in Canada," Smith pointed out. "Where the disparity comes in is when one team has Canadian players hurt and it has to play a healthy Canadian opponent. But the top Canadian players on each roster can play well; that's been proven."

Smith also says the name Canadian Football League, so as to have more of an American identity, will be modified. Something like Canadian-American Football League would be acceptable and more accurate. If growth is to continue it has to happen, even if some CFL traditionalists aren't enamored with the idea.

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