CFL's fumbles raise credibility question

April 18, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

The recuperative powers of the Canadian Football League were called into play last week when it waved off the search for a new home for the Las Vegas Posse.

On Friday, for the second time in 11 days, commissioner Larry Smith suspended the franchise and dismissed Jackson, Miss., as a relocation site. Yet, despite his announcement, there was a report in a Calgary, Alberta, newspaper over the weekend about continued efforts to revive the Jackson deal.

Based on the CFL's record, it was not hard to imagine.

In the wake of the latest decision, the CFL was left with a huge credibility crisis and a shell of a franchise -- assuming it goes through with today's dispersal draft of Posse players.

In three years of U.S. expansion, the league has made its share of clumsy mistakes. It had to bail out of San Antonio the first year. It scrubbed a news conference to announce a team in Orlando, Fla., in the second year. It has pulled teams from Sacramento, Calif., and Las Vegas in the third year.

But the mishandling of the Posse's announced move to Jackson -- league governors twice gave conditional approval -- could be the low point. Eric Tillman, general manager of the B.C. Lions and facilitator of the Jackson negotiations, was disconsolate after the latest failed bid.

"This turned out to be a very ugly and disappointing process," said Tillman, who had hoped to return to his native Jackson as general manager of the transplanted Posse.

It was a process that left many onlookers wondering about the future of the CFL.

"The league really is looking pretty bush," said Robert Wanzel, director of a sports administration program at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, and a longtime CFL fan. "It isn't fair to cities like Baltimore, who have come in and tried to have a very good operation."

Wanzel has been teaching his sports management course since 1974 but has followed the CFL since growing up in Winnipeg and Edmonton. He said the league suffers from dubious expansion strategy, an urgency to grow too quickly and the arrival of investors who have short-term interests at heart.

"I don't see where people are for long-term stability," Wanzel said. "I don't see any Art Rooneys, not in American cities. I don't see Horn Chen, for example, thinking he's going to make the Ottawa Rough Riders into this phenomenal franchise and be there 20 years. I see that [Chen's purchase of the Riders] as him maybe able to sell this to someone.

"Most Canadians look at the league and are saying whatever problems we had five years ago seem triply magnified now. If we were bush league before, what are we now? Now the league has the wrong type of investors looking at the league. I think some are quick-buck artists."

The CFL went through a laundry list of prospective owners and would-be sites trying to salvage the Las Vegas franchise. No fewer than six ownership groups looked into the possibility of buying the team, coming from places such as Los Angeles, Orlando, San Antonio, Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson.

Smith made a long retreat from deadlines he imposed in #F February, March and April. Fueled by the CFL's desire to keep the franchise afloat and to avoid lawsuits with the publicly held Posse, the problem festered.

League owners have been reluctant to blame Smith publicly.

"We've all been in touch with Larry," Baltimore owner Jim Speros said. "Vegas was a unique deal because it's a public company. What I regret is, Larry spent a lot of time on this when he should have put his efforts into managing the league. [But] Larry Smith did a good job. In two years, the league is a lot different. It's a matter of getting people who are committed."

Speros said he thinks Norton Herrick, the real-estate developer from Orlando who was the last to look into Jackson, will wind up in the league in some future expansion. But Speros also insisted that Herrick had the best deal of any of the potential Jackson investors.

Herrick was to pay $2.8 million for the debt-ridden team, then get a 21-year stadium lease at $1 a year -- in three-year options. He was to receive all concession and parking revenue. He walked away when no one in Jackson would guarantee to cover $1 million in losses.

"When it comes to sports, I guess there are a lot of tire-kickers out there," Speros said Friday after the deal collapsed. "I don't think he realizes the deal he left on the table. This was a great deal."

;/ And an all-too familiar result for the CFL.

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