That 'C' in the logo stands for 'chaotic'

June 30, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Forget those simmering, 110-degree summer evenings in the Nevada desert.

Scratch that shabby, small-college stadium in California.

In Year 3 of the great American experiment, the Canadian Football League is facing a whole new set of problems.

Still in search of that stabilizing U.S. television contract, the CFL is taking its three-down scheme to the Southeast.

Birmingham and Memphis are in as expansion hopefuls.

Las Vegas and Sacramento are out as abject failures.

Perhaps most fitting of all, the league has moved into San Antonio's Alamodome, where a retooling, if not exactly a last stand, is the order of business for U.S. expansion.

This was another off-season of upheaval for the CFL. There were ultimatums and ownership changes in Ottawa and Hamilton. There was the transfer of the Sacramento Gold Miners to San Antonio, where they'll be known as the Texans.

There was the clumsy handling of the Las Vegas Posse situation, when no league-imposed deadline could be taken seriously and no buyer for the debt-ridden franchise could be found. Then, when commissioner Larry Smith finally suspended the franchise for a second time in April, Ottawa selected a dead man, Derrick Robertson, in the dispersal draft.

There were financial crises throughout the league. Franchises in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary encouraged fans to buy more season tickets with thinly veiled threats. In Baltimore, the CFL's most successful American franchise lost $1.1 million after giving away more than 10,000 tickets a game at home.

In the past month, two more Canadian teams -- the Calgary Stampeders and the Toronto Argonauts -- have been put up for sale. The asking price for what might be the league's best franchise, the Stampeders, is only $6 million -- $3.5 million of which is needed to cover debt.

Count Calgary quarterback Doug Flutie, the league's only true superstar, among those most distressed by the turmoil surrounding the CFL.

"I think it cheapens the product," Flutie told the Calgary Herald recently. "It adds to the skepticism about the league. . . . It's aggravating at times, but I just want the whole image of the league to improve. That's the part that concerns me."

After two years of fiascoes, there appears to be declining confidence that U.S. expansion is the solution to the CFL's worsening fiscal climate.

"It's scary the way it's going," veteran Toronto receiver Paul Masotti told the Toronto Star. "When I look at the league as a player and as a fan, it seems expansion to the States just isn't working. Ticket sales aren't exactly going well down there. But the league is traveling where the money is, rushing into the States with hopes of getting a TV contract. That scares me the most."

Ticket sales in the United States are woeful. San Antonio has sold 1,500 season tickets, and Birmingham, at 2,000, is only slightly better. Memphis reports it has sold 7,000. Shreveport has sold 6,500 -- down 4,000 from last year. Baltimore's drop is more precipitous -- from an announced 26,000 season tickets a year ago to 17,000 this year.

In its exhibition opener, Baltimore drew fewer than 20,000 fans, the smallest home crowd of its brief existence. It didn't help, of course, that the league released its schedule in May, just 47 days before the first game.

The CFL has taken a shaky first step toward its much-desired North-South divisional organaization. There will be eight Canadian teams in the North and five U.S. teams in the South.

The league has yet to reveal its playoff format for the 1995 season, though, and has been unable to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the CFL Players' Association.

It also must learn to adjust to smaller stadiums in the United States. The Liberty Bowl in Memphis, for instance, will have 10-yard end zones instead of the CFL's traditional 20 yards. (Baltimore played with 18-yard end zones at Memorial Stadium last season.)

There is talk of a team in Miami next year -- last week's exhibition game between Baltimore and Birmingham drew 20,250 at the Orange Bowl -- but given the failures in Las Vegas and Sacramento, Smith now is saying the league must tread more cautiously with American expansion.

"It may not be a bad idea for us to take a breath at this particular time, consolidate what we have, and then put us in a better position to bring in other teams," Smith said. "We may need one more team to balance out the divisions. We need to move much slower and allow teams in the league to become more solid."

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