Fans stay away in droves in Memphis, Birmingham

On the CFL

September 22, 1995|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The first shock wave hit two weeks ago in Memphis, when only 4,371 fans showed up at the Liberty Bowl to watch the Mad Dogs edge Shreveport.

That was a prelude to the hit Birmingham absorbed at the turnstiles on Sunday, when only 5,289 sat in Legion Field to watch the Barracudas blow out Ottawa.

Those marked the smallest crowds to see a Canadian Football League game this season, with each low point coming in a U.S. expansion city. The huge number of no-shows calls into further question whether three-down football can compete with the NFL and major college ball, even in traditional football-mad areas.

Memphis, which has averaged only 15,142 -- second worst in the league -- committed a tactical blunder by moving its Shreveport game from an evening to an afternoon start. That created a conflict with televised NFL games involving Dallas and New Orleans, two teams that remain popular in Memphis.

Birmingham is a more frustrating case. The Barracudas, who drew 31,185 in their home opener two months ago, have seen attendance dwindle over the past three home dates, when they failed to crack 20,000.

Sunday's disappointing showing -- despite the presence of Barracudas quarterback Matt Dunigan and Ottawa's recently acquired quarterback, former Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware -- could be blamed on the return of college football.

"I was told on Day One when I came to Birmingham that it was going to be tough to compete in the fall when college football season starts, and it looks like that's the case," Barracudas owner Art Williams said. "We couldn't survive with that kind of attendance. That's obvious to everybody. My hope is that it's just a freak."

Trouble is, Sunday's fiasco came the day after Alabama and Auburn played. Another theory is that Sunday's 12:30 starting time presented too many conflicts with Birmingham's large churchgoing public, not to mention NFL viewers.

All of which comes back to the CFL's most dire need -- a major television contract.

Dunigan doing it again

The Barracudas can't blame their offense for their troubles at the gate. Since joining Birmingham after sitting out the season's first two games with a finger injury on his throwing hand, Dunigan has led the team to a 7-5 showing and playoff contention in the Southern Division.

In 10 starts, Dunigan has thrown a league-high 23 touchdown passes and has averaged 324 passing yards. And since a 36-8 loss to Baltimore on July 29, the Barracudas have gone 4-3, averaging 33.4 points.

In seven games since the rout by Baltimore, Dunigan has thrown for 2,364 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only three interceptions in 325 attempts.

For his 13-year career, he has thrown for 40,460 yards and 280 touchdowns.

So long, Shreveport?

Count Baltimore owner Jim Speros among those expecting the Shreveport Pirates, who expect to lose about $2.5 million in their second season, to move after the season. Speros spoke with Shreveport owner Bernie Glieberman during last week's 24-17 Baltimore victory.

"He was upset. He's disappointed in the support he's gotten from the fans and the local business people," Speros said. "I think Bernie sees greener pastures in bigger markets. . . . I think he's made up his mind to move already. No one twisted his arm to go there [Shreveport]."

Three of those four markets likely are Milwaukee, Miami and Orlando.

Rough ride ahead

The Saskatchewan Roughriders, who will face Baltimore in a home-and-home series beginning next weekend, have come back from the dead. After a 1-7 start, the Roughriders have won three of their past four to achieve a 4-8 record and mention as a possible playoff team.

Now for the bad news. Saskatchewan will have to face the Stallions without its top tailback, Darren Joseph (835 all-purpose yards, seven touchdowns), who is out for a month with a cracked rib.

Moreover, after tomorrow's game against Toronto, the Roughriders play Baltimore twice and Calgary twice before finishing in British Columbia. Those three teams have a combined record of 30-7.

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