Canadian Football Heads South To Find New Sponsors and Fans
Faltering support and finances forces league to scout US market
TORONTO — ATTENTION American football lovers: Canadian-style football may be coming to a city near you - like Portland, Ore., or Nashville, Birmingham, Ala., or Orlando, Fla.
At least that's what Larry Smith dearly hopes. Mr. Smith is a Montreal marketing whiz hired two years ago by Canadian Football League (CFL) team owners to take over as commissioner and revive the moribund eight-team league.
Battered by declining attendance, a glut of televised sports programming, and a popular shift among Canadians toward baseball, CFL teams in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary have been hovering on the brink. Even in well-heeled Toronto, the Argonauts club has been losing millions and is struggling to fill the city's massive Skydome.
Surveying prospects for the sport, which is played on a bigger field with slightly different rules, Smith reached a quick conclusion: Go where the money is - to the United States.
"It was really important for us to enter the US since our business had become stagnant," Smith says. "We have such an appealing, unpredictable, and fast game it was crucial ... to expand."
Two new US franchises - Sacramento and San Antonio - were announced with fanfare Jan. 13. Then the San Antonio deal fell apart. Despite that, the Sacramento Gold Miners are plugging along. And on July 26, Smith announced Las Vegas would be getting a team.
Smith's game plan is to reverse a $2 million (Canadian; US$1.52 million) league deficit and take all eight loss-ridden teams to profitability in three years. Rather than go head-to-head with the powerful National Football League, Smith has adopted what he calls his "Wal-Mart strategy." The CFL season runs from July to November, whereas the NFL runs from September through January.
"Basically the idea is to go into mid-sized US cities that are never likely to get an NFL franchise," Smith says.
Initially, the decision to sell franchises in the US angered traditionalists, including some owners, who preferred to keep the game in Canada. Smith's thrust into a US market glutted by pro, college, and high school football was too risky, they said.
In the CFL's case, smaller is better, Smith says. The lure of a CFL franchise selling for about $3 million (compared with about US$125 million for an NFL franchise) may be irresistible for some wealthy businessmen who could not afford a NFL team.
Also, aside from the low cost of entry, fixed costs for such a team are much less than the NFL. The league enforces a "salary cap" of $2.5 million for an entire team's wages, with a few million more to pay for one "marquee" player per team. The low costs mean a low break-even point.
Most Canadian observers are quick to say that Canada's game is faster and higher scoring than the NFL. But if it's so exciting, why isn't the fan support there? Many blame poor marketing, as does Smith. Others think the cause may be more subtle.
Canadian football was extremely popular in the 1950s and 1960s, says Louise Froggett, assistant curator at the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in Hamilton, Ontario. But baseball has since taken over. CFL attendance peaked at 2.9 million in 1978 and last year was 2.2 million, she says.
Played on a field 110 yards long and 65 yards wide (compared to 53.3 yards wide and 100 long for the NFL), the Canadian version has three downs per possession instead of four. End zones are 20 yards deep instead of 10 yards and the list goes on.
Will Americans adjust and enjoy Canadian football? Sports writers in Sacramento have reportedly dubbed the CFL the "Confusing Football League."
But Chris Schultz, an offensive tackle with the Argonauts is certain Americans will enjoy the difference. He should know. The 6 ft. 7 in., 280-pound lineman graduated from the University of Arizona, played four years for the Dallas Cowboys, and has played seven now with the Argonauts.
"I don't think our style of football is inferior at all," says Mr. Schultz at a recent practice at the Skydome. "It's just a different style of play. Up here, things depend more on a person's foot speed. In the US it's a little more physical just because there's less room to run away."