In its 75th season, the Canadian Football League is struggling for its life - and trying every means imaginable to survive. Evidence of insecurity is everywhere. This summer, one week before the CFL season was to begin, the Montreal franchise folded because of low advance ticket sales. Teams in Calgary and Regina required last-minute telethon campaigns to sell season tickets. And the Edmonton Eskimos players accepted a voluntary 10 percent salary reduction to help balance the team's budget.
The problems of the CFL have a great deal to do with its uniqueness and potential strengths - its value to some Canadians as a distinctive national institution, and to fans in the United States as a reminder of simpler, less litigious times in pro sports.
As a first-generation American of Canadian stock and a sports buff, I've been attending CFL games this fall and interviewing players, team officials, and fans across the country. Some key factors affecting the league came into focus in the first game I saw - a late-summer clash between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the British Columbia Lions at the latter's domed stadium in Vancouver.
The crowd of 38,000 appeared in T-shirts and cut-off shorts, as though summoned from the beach. The temperature was 85 degrees, and the stadium felt like a sauna. But teams in this region are forced to play in the daytime heat because most of their national television audience is three time zones to the east, where the bulk of Canada's population lies.
Television now is basic to the CFL, and to its future. But the extent of its importance is debated. With each team receiving about $450,000 in TV revenue this year compared with the approximately $14 million picked up by the average National Football League club in a normal season, some people wonder how much schedule-juggling is warranted to accomodate television's demands.
As for the scene in the stadium, it's difficult to identify much of it as Canadian. The atmosphere, in fact, seems more like California. Some fans bounce a beach ball through the stands. Cheerleaders dance to ``La Bamba'' in quadraphonic sound. Crazy George, a professional cheerleader from the States, exhorts the crowd as he bangs his drum.
Canadian football looks American as well, although some differences are apparent: the field is longer and wider, there are 12 players to a side, and the teams have three downs rather than four to gain 10 yards. These features, and others such as the three feet between opposing lines and the rule allowing all five backs to be in motion before the snap, create a quicker game, where speed and agility receive greater emphasis - and brute strength less - than in the NFL version.
American players, limited by quota to 40 percent of each roster, are critical to the Canadian game, as they play most of the ``skill'' positions such as quarterback and wide receiver. A few are veteran ex-NFL players. Some are awaiting their shot. And many others are physically better suited to this league. At 5 ft. 10 in., 215 lbs., for example, James (Quick) Parker of Wake Forest is one of the CFL's premier defensive ends. Too small even to play linebacker in the NFL, he has the speed to enhance his market value on the larger Canadian field.
The game itself moves quickly, with only 20 seconds between plays and but one timeout per team each half. And with fewer downs and a bigger field there is more incentive and more room to take chances.
In the game at Vancouver, the Lions, after blowing a two-touchdown lead, have the ball at midfield with 36 seconds left and the score tied, 14-all. Overtime beckons. But suddenly punter Lui Passaglia trots onto the field, and the crowd stirs with excitement. The Lions are going to try for a rouge - the single point awarded when a kicked ball crosses the opponent's goal line without return. Passaglia gets off a soaring 53-yard punt that carries across the goal line. Winnipeg's Ken Winey takes the ball two yards deep, tries to bring it out, but is downed in the end zone. The Lions win, 15-14.
Now the noise is thunderous. And the fans, who knew to expect the rouge, appear clearly Canadian after all. It's their game, and their league. And here in Canada, on this day at least, the CFL is valued and well.