CFL is joke, and even we can't laugh

June 01, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

They were the winningest expansion franchise in professional sports history, and they lost $1.1 million.

Only in the CFL.

Jim Speros can blame one-time expenses for the losses, but the simple fact is, the Baltimore Football Club peaked in its first year of existence.

Sadly, this team is in trouble.

The fight for the Colts name -- history.

The city's hatred for the NFL -- exhausted.

The novelty of three-down football -- gone.

Anything else?

Oh yes, the ragtag CFL -- a joke. This is the league that drafted a dead man.

It is also the league that tried to move a team to Jackson, Miss. -- and couldn't get it done.

Alas, no city would take the Las Vegas Posse, not Jackson, not vTC Birmingham, not Orlando, not San Antonio, not Los Angeles.

So, the Posse is taking the year off.

Most leagues suspend players.

The CFL suspends franchises.

Baltimore is the exception. Baltimore is the class of the league. But now it turns out that not even Baltimore is immune to CFL shenanigans.

The average attendance at Memorial Stadium last season was 36,377 -- tops in the CFL.

The average paid attendance?

Uh, that was another story.

It seems as many as 10,500 fans a game got into the stadium without buying a ticket, thanks to corporate trade-offs and giveaways.

Paper house, paper tiger.

How many will pay to see Baltimore play this season? Speros said the renewal rate of season-ticket holders is 73 percent. Of course, he might be exaggerating that number, too.

The issue is credibility -- for Baltimore, and for the league. Ask Tom Ebright, who moved Baltimore's AHL franchise to Portland, Maine. This town won't support a minor-league operation.

That's the problem Speros faces, whether he admits it or not. His team will continue to attract a devoted cult following, but probably nothing more.

The truth is, he's not a bad owner. He tries hard. He spends money. And once again, he's going to put a winner on the field, perhaps even another Grey Cup finalist.

"We have a great ballclub," executive vice president Tom Matte said. "If we're not in the final game, I'll be surprised."

But is winning enough?

Baltimore got a kick out of this team last season, but for reasons that had little to do with football. The fans wanted to vent their anger at the NFL. They wanted to shout "C-O-L-T-S."

Speros exploited the city's pent-up rage, and the baseball strike only added to his marketing bonanza. Revenues were $7.9 million. And still, the team lost $1.1 million.

True, Speros won't spend his own money upgrading the stadium this season, or fighting in court for the Colts name. But it stands to reason that he won't make as much money, either.

The Bengals aren't coming, no NFL team is coming.

How long can the CFL fill the void?

The league isn't even popular in Canada, where five of the eight teams spent the off-season threatening major changes -- even franchise shifts -- unless more season tickets were sold.

Sacramento moved to San Antonio, and Las Vegas is in, uh, flux. The expansion team in Birmingham has sold fewer than 2,000 season tickets. The expansion team in Memphis won't release sales figures.

The league wants to add three more U.S. cities next season -- Miami, Orlando, and Hartford, Conn. ESPN is so excited, it's televising three games this summer. ESPN2 will show 19, plus the playoffs.

Speros, meanwhile, continues to lobby for corporate support in Baltimore, just like Ebright and all the wanna-be big-timers before him.

But if you were running a corporation, would you associate with this silly league, much less an owner who is slow paying his bills?

Speros complains when the Maryland Stadium Authority delays money it promised. But twice last year, he was sued for non-payment of bills.

The guy is full of himself -- "I can pick the phone up, and I can get on television right now -- any time, any radio station," he said. But the guy also is a hustler.

He deserves better. The city deserves better.

Problem is, we're in the wrong league.

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