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So Who Says the CFL is Passe?
by John Hughes
This last Grey Cup was not a Canadian classic, but it served to underscore the reasons why the Canadian Football League is the thriving outpost of the pro-sports reality check.
The Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes were resurrected in 1997. They have played great football at tiny Percival Molson Stadium in front of a rock-solid fan base since late that year and the revival of coast-to-coast football in Canada has been a rollicking success. The runners-up Edmonton Eskimos have played in front of sell-out and near sell-out crowds all season long at Commonwealth Stadium. This resurgence of enthusiasm for Canadian pigskin has pervaded the country. While there have remained trouble spots at the turnstiles at Hamilton and Vancouver, both have recently won Grey Cups, in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Further, the CFL became whole again this year as the Ottawa Renegades filled the football vacuum in the nation's capital and even beat the mighty Alouettes on their home turf in the final game of the regular season.
These present times of prosperity are the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. As those who have followed the sport know, what defined this league for eons was its series of continual near-death experiences. It had been mired in the disconcerting shade of fiscal doom since the late 1980's when the Montreal franchise collapsed. Not long after came the badly conceived expansion effort into the United States that brought us such forgettable incarnations as the Memphis Mad Dogs and the Las Vegas Posse. The CFL seemed at its nadir.
Sadly, things became even worse. After the US teams folded their tents in 1995, the beleaguered Ottawa Rough Riders played their last game in 1996. A franchise that had first lined up in 1876 was now defunct and the CFL was in the worst shape of its existence. What was more, attendance at CFL games in cities where Doug Flutie was not the quarterback waned drastically.
The CFL is back with a three-down fury not seen since the days of the original nine-team league and its most loyal supporters are very happy indeed. The most significant achievement in this recent flourish is the fact that it has been accomplished on a fairly slender budget. It is true that a fair bit of marketing dough was spent on the Argos in Toronto. But that's Toronto; the rest of the league (with the exception of penny-pinching Hamilton) forged ahead with a modest marketing budget and managed to sell seats and pay their players decent salaries.
This is the real trick that the league has managed to master: while it has not adhered to its own salary cap system, neither has it succumbed to the ridiculous bidding wars so rife in other pro sports leagues that price games out of the range of the average fan and inflate the egos of players. To be sure, dour, overpaid Nation Football League rejects like Lawrence Phillips come along once every couple of years to let the CFL know just how lucky it is to bask in the good fortune of his services. The spirit of the CFL, however, seems to admit only one Lawrence Phillips for every 150 or 200 laughing, "just glad to be here," John Avery types who give the CFL the character that it exudes. Because of the wages paid to CFL players, which, for a starter, range between $60,000-$120,000 CDN per year, (significantly more for quarterbacks) which is not bad for five months of work, the game is accessible to fans while providing an entertaining product. For example, tickets at a BC Lions regular season home game in 2002 ranged from $15 to $60 CDN.
Contrast those prices with tickets at the NFL's San Diego Chargers home games this year, which ran from $29 to $250 US owing to untold millions overpaid to athletes on that team. Even for the frozen Canadiana of Sunday's Grey Cup game in Edmonton the highest price of admission was only $165 CDN. The Superbowl's most expensive entry fee is $550 US. Because of this newly rekindled love of the Canadian game there is more money to go around and the players are agitating for a higher share of it, which they surely deserve.
A word of caution for both players and owners on that note: the CFL is a league that has, in large measure, recovered its fan base both at the gate as well as on television; it has done so with a financial reality check that other pro sports leagues would do well to adopt. If both sides can agree to act in good faith in the next collective bargaining agreement there will be no reason to return to the ruinous times of seasons past and fans will continue to love this affordable game.
The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
Phone: 604-266-6552 Fax: 604-267-3342