Published on September 27, 2010 11:18 PM by dbo.
Sunday wrapped a successful landing of the CFL in Atlantic Canada. Not the pre-season tastes provided before, this regular season matchup provided the largest attended CFL game in the Maritimes as well as the first neutral site regular season game played in the region. By all accounts the week was a success and the league was received with open arms by Moncton. The lead-up featured the required discussion about Moncton’s and the Maritimes’ suitability for a CFL franchise and the hurdles faced. Outside the media analysis, CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon would only state an Atlantic team is a possibility, not a probability.
With all the media speculation and fan interest in what it will take to bring a franchise east of Quebec, the commissioner only repeated three known criteria for an expansion franchise — a suitable stadium in the 25,000 seat range, a fan base and corporate support. These statements will do little to get interested parties to engage the league over the Atlantic opportunity, of which the league has admitted there have been none so far. At the same time, arguments over Halifax versus Moncton as the proper location for a CFL franchise continue needlessly, with fans adding to the divisiveness.
A public “road map” of the league’s goals, criteria and required partnerships will help those interested in Moncton and beyond know what they need to do to be successful. The same will help the fans who attended and watched Touchdown Atlantic know what is required to fulfil the dream of bringing the CFL to the Atlantic region.
The CFL did make two announcements that show a commitment to the Maritimes. First, Commissioner Cohon announced a $75,000 legacy fund for minor football in the Maritimes. While not official, Cohon also indicated on Prime Time Sports the league is working to repeat the Touchdown Atlantic festival and game (mp3 audio). Cohon estimated a multi-year deal could be announced in the next 60 days if a commitment from all levels of government could be reached. His radio appearance also contains other comments on Touchdown Atlantic and franchise potential, while the round table discussed the issue in a segment Friday.
With that background out of the way, I now focus on the lack of a road map. Before we can begin, however, like always, we must begin with some history.
In 1982 the CFL made an abrupt announcement regarding expansion to the Maritimes. A franchise, tentatively called the Atlantic Schooners, was approved in principle for the Halifax area. A very visible group in Halifax likes to keep the knowledge of the Atlantic Schooners franchise alive today, sending a contingent to many Grey Cups to promote the cause of a Halifax franchise.
The conditional Atlantic franchise was announced the same weekend as the demise of the original Alouette franchise and the addition of the Montreal Concorde franchise. The initial principals involved were J.I. Albrecht and John Donaval of Mississauga, a trucking executive with business holdings in the Atlantic provinces. The expansion fee was publicized as $1.5 million. The owners were promising to build a 30,000 seat stadium at a cost of $6.5 million in time to begin play for the 1984 season.1
The announcement was greeted with scepticism from the media and even the most staunch CFL supporters. The move was seen as an attempt to show the league was stable and expanding during the Montreal crisis and sooth broadcaster and media worries that the CFL was in decline. While the league wished to expand to ten teams and become a coast-to-coast league, the normal conservative diligence of owners seemed to go to the wayside because of the Montreal situation.
In December, 1982 plans for an expansion draft were announced. The Schooners franchise would select 2 import and 2 non-import players from each team (a total of 36 players) in January 1984.2 The team never made it past the next June.
In February, 1983 cracks started to appear. The CFL stated the provisional franchise had until May 5 to confirm the conditions of the franchise. J.I. Albrecht confirmed the stadium construction would begin in the spring 1983 and be completed by that fall. The May meetings came and the league identified three questions for the franchise to answer: clear financing details of the stadium, a breakdown of the shareholders in the Maritime Professional Football Club Ltd. and required statements of undertaking from the new principal owner R.B. Cameron. In addition, the ownership group did not make the required $900,000 payment of the $1.5 million franchise fee. The team was given until June 17 to meet the conditions.3
Ground was never broken on the stadium. One day before the new deadline the club issued a statement notifying that its application to the league was being withdrawn and season ticket deposits would be refunded. As the group could not meet the league conditions, they decided to withdraw their application rather than be rejected by the league. The owners were expected to resubmit an application but were never heard from again. The changing financial aspects of the league and the economy probably contributed to the inability to arrange for financing for a stadium.
The league did not let its Maritime ambitions die, though they did go on hold for a few years. By 1986 the league was ready to demonstrate an interest in the Maritimes while determining the fan and investor interest there. An exhibition game was scheduled between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the newly re-christened Montreal Alouettes (nee Concordes) at Canada Games Stadium in Saint John, New Brunswick. The game was a success with 11,463 people cramming into a stadium with a capacity of 8,000.
The next year the league returned to Saint John, with Hamilton facing Montreal in front of another capacity crowd. This interestingly gave Saint John the distinction of seeing Montreal play both its first and last “home” games as the second edition of the Alouettes, with the club withdrawing from play on June 23, 1987 prior to the start of the regular season. Rumours of government support for construction of a stadium never materialized into serious talks.
After that event the CFL was in survival mode and Maritime expansion became the lowest of priorities. In 1992 Halifax as well as London and Saskatoon were mentioned as part of Commissioner Larry Smith’s press conference on expansion, but were never serious candidates. The league was focused on the US where owners were abundant, but not fan interest.
After the league’s return to Ottawa in 2002, focus shifted to the Maritimes again. This time the league went to Halifax with a pre-season game in 2005. Hamilton faced Toronto in front of over 11,000 fans at Huskies Stadium. The CFL was to return with another game in 2006 featuring the Ottawa Renegades versus the Montreal Alouettes, but the suspension of the Ottawa franchise led this game to be removed from the schedule.
The landing of Touchdown Atlantic’s regular season CFL game in Moncton began in 2004 from the scouting of locations for the 2005 exhibition game. Once announced on the 2010 schedule building anticipation led to tickets selling out in 32 hours in March.
From the airport greeting to the week’s festivities, the commitment and passion of Monctonians and all Maritimers was evident. The week was full of events for fans and players, matching the approachability of CFL players with the hospitality of the Maritimes. Overall, the reception exceeded expectations.
After all excitement and national attention, with a perfect opportunity to present to Canada its new direction, the CFL can only muster a statement to throw water on the fire. While there are barriers to additional expansion, there is no need to cool fan expectations. Instead, this was a perfect opportunity for the CFL to outline its expansion road map such that Commissioner Larry Smith had done in 1992. Rather than the transparent, desperate outline in 1992 leading to US expansion, this was an opportunity to list in more than three bullet points what it takes to get a CFL franchise, time lines and options.
With all the excitement over the reception the CFL received in Moncton, some analysts started getting ahead of the process, and marked Moncton as the next step towards a 12-team league. Let’s be clear and understand just like you can’t erase a 21-point deficit in one play, the CFL shouldn’t be focused on expanding to 12 teams before it has nine. Analysts are granted that leeway because it makes a good headline.
There have been some trails mapped out by the media, not all have been regurgitated fodder with no added insight. The most thorough being David Naylor’s analysis on TSN.ca. Alex J. Walling, also of TSN.ca, brings an interesting local perspective. Terry Koshan thought about some of the issues as well. Why doesn’t the league be more open with some of this information?
Some of the items I believe a road map should address:
Some of this is sensitive and cannot be addressed specifically until agreements are in place at the league and CFLPA level. A road map consists of no promises or commitments. The situation may change, resulting in a change to the road map. It does provide an open starting point for all those interested in the league’s growth. Existing owners will be hesitant about revealing financial details of their operations, much like their predecessors. Let us not kid ourselves, though. This isn’t the profitability of a Tim Horton’s franchise becoming public, the general finances of the CFL are well known.
Answering these questions says that you do know your business and increases the knowledge and confidence about what it takes to establish a franchise beyond a one game event. Canada lacks a lot of multi-millionaires with the capability to own a franchise that also have a dream to do so. True to the league’s grass roots, it will be the people that push these initiatives with politicians and business groups. Knowledge of what they are up against will allow them to set their goals. Otherwise fans are left scratching their heads, asking “Why won’t the CFL grant us a franchise?”
1 — Frank Cosentino, A Passing Game (Winnipeg: Bain & Cox, 1995), 189.
2 — Cosentino, 189.
3 — Cosentino, 199.