FACE IT. All that strike business made you nostalgic for the good old Canadian Football League. Remember the happy days of the last strike, when three downs, 12 players and the Saskatchewan Something or Others filled up your Trinitron? The CFL was a pleasant pigskin pacifier until the prodigal players came home. Now, you say, whatever happened to the good old CFL? Glad you asked....
Well, for starters, the good old CFL is almost sure to last the whole season. After that, it's a possible third-and-punt situation. Put it this way: In polls in Canada, the CFL finishes slightly ahead of acid rain these days. The Montreal Alouettes folded last June. The Calgary Stampeders pretty much folded and then reopened. The Ottawa Rough Riders aren't far from folding. The Saskatchewan Roughriders ought to fold until they can think up their own name.
Ottawa really ought to. It can't give tickets away. In a magnanimous gesture last month the Ottawa players bought 7,000 from the club—paid for them with their own money—in the hope of selling them to the faithful citizenry, who would get not only that week's game at the regular price but also another game absolutely free. By kickoff the players had sold 1,500 tickets. They ate the rest. Then they went out and lost their eighth straight game. Burp.
The former Ottawa owner, Allan Waters, must have laughed. He was about ready to pull the sheet over the Rough Riders' heads this year when he found some Ottawans willing to buy the club—for $1 (Canadian). Some people think Waters snookered 'em. Ottawa needed to average 27,000 fans this year to break even. So far the Rough Riders have averaged 18,800. Harold Ballard, owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, lost $3 million last season—and he won the Grey Cup. As for the league as a hole, er, whole, fans have come out unanimously in their undying indifference toward it. Last year the CFL drew an average of 130,000 fewer TV viewers per week than in 1985. The Stampeders were so broke in 1985 they announced they didn't have enough money to buy stamps. Brother, can you spare a chin strap?
Some of the players—Tex Schramm will grow hair when he hears this—are taking 10% pay cuts this season. The average salary of a player in the CFL is only $60,332. Compared with most professional athletes, that's not much. The other day somebody asked one of the players if the CFL had a drug problem. "How can there be a drug problem in this league?" said the player. "We can't make enough money to buy drugs."
In Regina, Saskatchewan, home of the publicly owned Roughriders (one word as opposed to Ottawa's two) the team had to hold a telethon to pay last season's debt of $750,000—so it could get on with this year's debt. This year the Roughriders held a lottery, and it was more successful than the telethon, possibly because first prize was a house. Regina has fewer than 170,000 people and the tickets were $100 a piece, but the team sold 13,000.
In Winnipeg the Blue Bombers are holding concerts before games—Canada's Burton Cummings and the Miami Sound Machine—to put fannies in seats. The CFL is thinking about asking Bryan Adams to play benefits next year to keep the league in the saddle. You have to wonder how long this can go on. Sooner or later people are going to notice that somebody keeps trying to sneak a football game into their rock concerts.
According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, Ballard's auditor lists the value of the Hamilton franchise as zero. Ballard, who also owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens, bought the team as a hobby. He is 84 and diabetic. No new eccentric millionaires are waiting to take over. Even the strongest club in the league, the British Columbia Lions, is limping. Attendance is down 10,000 people per game this season. Almost everybody figures if one more team goes, the whole caboodle goes.
It took a lot of doing for the CFL to descend from something the American networks thought was good enough to placate NFL fanatics in 1982 to something even Canadians have a hard time watching. The CFL has marketed itself disastrously, misunderstood the economics of television, failed to grasp the concept of fan fragmentation in the age of the cable sports explosion, underestimated the appeal of the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos, scheduled as though drunk, tried to battle buck-for-buck with the USFL and lost, and forgotten a critical axiom applicable to all sports leagues: The whole is greater (much) than the sum of the parts.
But the grandest mistake of all may have come the day the CFL let Vancouver real estate tycoon Nelson Skalbania buy a franchise, the Montreal Alouettes. If the CFL dies, carve July 4, 1981 on its tombstone—the day Skalbania unveiled his Alouette menagerie of high-priced American stars, including quarterback Vince Ferragamo and wide receiver Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, and got his stripes stripped by the B.C. Lions 48-8. Skalbania was not only an outsider but a dumb outsider to boot. By the following year the players were gone, Skalbania was gone, and the fans were gone, even though the next owner, Charles Bronfman, lost $17 million over five seasons trying to get them back.