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"So new, so different, everything's so different here," Allen says later. "You call the Alouettes' office and they answer in French. And this city...so clean, so beautiful. My wife, Etty, is going to love it. She's French-Tunisian. Speaks five languages. If I can just get this thing turned around."
Right now the thing that's bugging him most is the team's debt. "It has to be paid; that's the first thing," Allen says. "If not, then we'll always be running short of cash."
Last week Bruce Allen went over the figures with an accountant from Price Waterhouse, and the results left him stunned. "All told we're about $5 million in the hole," he says. "It's not really an actual debt. It's more of, well, there's going to have to be an income to cover it. There was no budget last year. Any time someone wanted to draw money or write a check, he just wrote it. If a player was unhappy, they said, 'O.K., here's 10 grand.' Bonuses of $25,000 were tossed around for no reason. There were those incredibly high salaries, but that was only part of it. The fat is everywhere—entertainment, game promotions. Two former employees ran up a combined expense account of $90,000. There was no supervision here at all. My little sister would have known better."
So far $300,000 has been trimmed in front-office salaries. Bruce figures that by the time his father is through with the player roster another $1.3 million will be chopped. Of Skalbania's half dozen high-priced American imports, two are already gone—Linebacker Tom Cousineau, whose contract ran out, and Wide Receiver James Scott, who was waived. Together, they represented more than $500,000. Box Office Billy Johnson, the other wide receiver, and his $185,000 tab may be on the way out. Quarterback Vince Ferragamo, whose $450,000 salary—$350,000 of it on a personal service arrangement with Skalbania—broke the bank, is going. The Alouettes have written to the Rams, giving them the right to negotiate with Ferragamo, L.A.'s Super Bowl quarterback of '79 but a bust in Montreal last year, who finished the season on the inactive roster. The matter will come down to how much of Ferragamo's salary the Rams will pick up, and how much the Alouettes will have to eat. As for the other two Americans, Running Back David Overstreet and Defensive End Keith Gary, first draft choices last year of the Dolphins and Steelers, respectively, Allen would like to keep them both, assuming that the rape charge brought against Overstreet on March 2 is cleared up. It has gotten the club a lot of bad ink.
Allen knows that the high-priced American formula seldom works in Canadian football. "The 19 Canadians on your roster determine how good your team will be, not the 15 Americans," he says. "You can always pick up enough Americans from the free-agent lists." And the trader in him warms to the idea that, under a new CFL rule, Canadian veterans can now become free agents after four years. "For the price of one Ferragamo," Allen says, "you can pick up a whole bunch of those guys."
The finances of Canadian football are surprisingly small potatoes for anyone accustomed to NFL numbers. Skalbania bought the Alouettes for $3.1 million, and there are franchises worth only half that—and that's in Canadian dollars, worth 20% less than U.S. greenbacks. TV rights, from Canadian television and ESPN, amount to $644,444 per team per season. Radio rights range from $10,000 ( Montreal) to $100,000 ( Edmonton). A CFL Players Association poll indicates that the league's average salary is $35,000 to $40,000, but 10% of the players—the higher-priced ones, naturally—didn't take part. Six of the stadiums hold fewer than 36,000. The biggest park in the league, Edmonton's, will seat 59,980 this coming season. Montreal, which drew 29,257 per game last year, is second at 58,367.
For Skalbania, whose reputation as a wheeler-dealer with the golden touch has been severely tarnished, to lose $4.5 million—or 50% more than the value of the franchise—in a single year would be comparable to an NFL team dropping $60 million. "My money was incompetently spent," Skalbania said last weekend. "I didn't know how bad it was until 10 days ago when my books were audited. I couldn't print the money fast enough the way it was shoveled out the door. I've been asked why I wasn't around to watch over things. I was back home in Vancouver doing what I know best—trying to make money faster than they were spending it. O.K., now George is here and I'm hoping things will change. They've got to. I've already been through that mad spending business and it made me sick."
But Bill Putnam, the Alouettes' executive vice president last season, demurs. "No money was spent last year without Skalbania's or his attorney's knowledge," he says.
It's 10 p.m. and Allen is enjoying a late dinner at the hotel where he has been staying, The Ritz-Carlton, an old and majestic establishment, "not like all those places in the States," he says, "that all look alike."
The waiter has served the wine—yes, Allen is a lover of fine wines—a 1970 Ch�teau Bouscaut, a Bordeaux: "Hmm, 1970," says Allen, "we [the Rams] were 9-4-1 that year. Beat the Giants 31-3 in the last game and knocked them out of the playoffs."