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STUFF CANADA HAS GIVEN THE U.S.: Gretzky, geese and Alan Thicke. And now the Sacramento Gold Miners, the first U.S. entry in the Canadian Football League. The thinking is, if Canada can play American League baseball, the U.S. can play Canadian League football.
The Gold Miners actually represent the vanguard of CFL expansion plans, which include the addition of at least three more U.S. teams by the opening of the 1994 season. For the moment it is surprising enough to realize that the Edmonton Eskimos will soon frolic in the 105° heat of the San Joaquin Valley.
In fact, it's surprising that the Gold Miners will be frolicking there. Over the years Sacramento has had a tough time with pro football, no matter what its nationality. In 1989 the city thought that it was about to become the new home of Al Davis's Raiders. Davis stayed in L.A. Two seasons ago Sacramento became a port of call in the new World League. The World League suspended play after the '92 season.
Sacramento fans, who used to turn out in pretty good numbers (18,500 a game in 1992) to watch the World League Surge entertain teams from Barcelona and San Antonio, aren't likely to balk at the prospect of watching teams from Ottawa and Saskatchewan. At least that's the hope of the CFL, for which expansion is a badly needed remedy. Several of its eight teams have been steadily losing money, and its fans have been steadily losing interest. More than the $3 million expansion fee that Sacramento has paid, the CFL wants additional exposure, sponsors and viewers. The Canadians hope that teams placed in mid-sized U.S. markets that don't compete with NFL markets will deliver all this.
Sacramento just wants some football. The suspension of the World League left Fred Anderson, a timber tycoon who owns the Surge franchise, with a marketing vacuum. He had the seats, personnel and sales momentum...but no team. Anderson was beginning to annoy the locals every time he reminded them that the grandstands he had installed at Cal State-Sacramento's Hornet Field were costing him $1,000 a day in rental fees. He even toyed with the idea of bringing a Triple A baseball team to town just to fill those empty seats. So when the CFL began accepting applications last year, Anderson was first in line.
But when he made his pitch to the CFL's expansion committee for one of the new franchises—two were originally planned for this season—he didn't speak about his economic woes, neglected to present the civic blather he had prepared and simply said he would like to have a CFL team "for the fun of it." The committee immediately agreed that he was just the sort of fellow it should tap for an entry fee.
The league also liked the fact that Anderson wouldn't have to start an organization from scratch. All he had to do—although he has not done it so far—was replace the big S that's stitched into the carpet at the old Surge headquarters in Rancho Murieta. By the way, the new team is named the Gold Miners for historical reasons, not because its abbreviated name sounds a bit like Niners, as some cynics have suggested. Besides the carpeting, Anderson has been able to retain most of his front office, a coach and a quarterback.
Kay Stephenson, a former NFL quarterback who coached the Buffalo Bills a decade ago, agreed to stay in Sacramento, although not before deliberating for some time. The nature of the CFL game—so much emphasis on kicking—clearly bothered him. But on Jan. 28, Stephenson agreed to take the job. He signed a few Surge holdovers, notably quarterback David Archer, and a handful of other former World League players, including defensive back Bobby Humphery, an NFL veteran who had most recently played for the San Antonio Riders.
Archer, who had led the Surge to a 10-2 record and the World Bowl last year, was also a reluctant returnee. He had had a good training camp last July with the Philadelphia Eagles and was rewarded with a backup spot on that team. But Archer, who in 1986 started 11 games for the Atlanta Falcons and then, he says, "was never given the ball again," decided he would rather play in the CFL than watch in the NFL. "Did I get into this game to play or sit on the bench?" he says. "I probably left some money on the table when I came here, but I get a chance to be the guy on the field."
Archer didn't leave all that much on the table. A CFL payroll is capped at about two million U.S. dollars, ensuring that a team will pay a lot of civilianlike $50,000 salaries. But every team is allowed one marquee player, somebody whose salary does not count against the cap. Archer is reported to be making $500,000.