Tag Archives: CFL

CFL Cheapens Its Image with NFL Outcasts

By Jason Menard

It’s ironic that during this time when the Canadian dollar is so strongly valued against its American counterpart, our football league has never appeared cheaper than it does today.

The Canadian Football League, thanks to just two players who have yet to play a snap in the three-down game, have gone from being a viable league unto its own to becoming the laughing stock of the pigskin world – a last bastion for the National Football League’s castoffs.

South of the border, Lady Liberty proclaims “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” But perhaps the misguided few in the CFL should paraphrase that slogan into a new advertising campaign.

Think of it, the Radically Canadian promotion is close to running its course, so why not try, “Give us your suspended, your exiled, your cheaters yearning to prove they’re above the law. The wretched refuse of your roster – as long as they have some marketability left.”

With the Whizzinator himself, Onterrio Smith, suiting up – or, at least, riding the pines nursing an injury – in Winnipeg, and Ricky Williams looking to join the Argonauts despite a penchant for puffing and passing polluted pee, the CFL has been downgraded to nothing more than a novelty act. And that’s a shame for the hundreds of hard-working, dedicated athletes who have represented themselves appropriately and integrated themselves into our communities.

For the next year, at least, the CFL will only be referenced south of the border in highlights featuring these two drug cheats. Their time in purgatory will become fodder for the talking heads on the nightly sportscasts. The toil of their teammates will be little more than ambient noise from which these miscreants exploits can jump out! Of course, at least the league will be mentioned south of the border more than once a year as a throwaway item during the Grey Cup.

But is any publicity really good publicity? Will the presence of these two running backs truly bring needed attention to the league? Or will it just be another way for these two players to earn even more attention in the national spotlight while their teams toil in anonymity. Does anyone really believe that people are going to look at the Blue Bombers or Argonauts as anything more than opportunistic jokes?

And that’s not all. The Montreal Alouettes have their own history of hiring thugs. Quarterback Quincy Carter is out of the NFL, allegedly due to concerns about potential drug-related suspensions. And this is also the team that gave upstanding citizen Lawrence Phillips another chance to rehabilitate his career. Of course, this is the same guy who helped his girlfriend down the stairs by dragging her down them by her hair, but that’s OK for the CFL.

Really, aren’t we better than this? Is the lure of potential so great that winning supersedes character? Of course, we know it does in the realm of professional sports. But while a league like the NFL, NBA, or even the NHL can afford to give thugs a second chance, a league like the CFL – desperately searching for an identity and credibility – can’t afford to be linked with these miscreants.

The biggest problem is that these are high-profile players, not simply special-teamers who can be buried on the roster. Smith, Williams, Carter, and even Phillips were marquee talents at one time who were brought in to dominate, not just contribute. In the minds of the league’s owners and general managers these players’ perceived value on the gridiron exceeds the cost to their reputation.

But what happens next year? If Smith and Williams are reinstated, what legacy do they leave behind in Canada? Will it be the rich football traditions present in Winnipeg and Toronto that Americans think about the next time they cast their minds to our league? Or will their names only illicit chuckles as the bush-league suckers who grabbed any attention they could, regardless of the cost?

The CFL obviously desperately craves acceptance as a big league of its own. The problem is that you’re tainted by the company you keep. And when high-profile players with questionable pasts become the face of your league, don’t be surprised when you’re not only looked upon as a joke, but some of those long-time supporters walk away because the league they love is no longer.

Is that really a cost the CFL is willing to pay?

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Ottawa’s Irreconcilable Differences

By Jason Menard

Just when you thought it was safe to be a CFL fan. Where’s Paul McCartney and Brigitte Bardot when you need them? After all, each time a Canadian feels it’s safe to poke their head out and be proud of our national league, someone comes along and Gliebermans the fan.

It’s truly cruel and unusual punishment – especially for those long-suffering folk in our nation’s capital and it must stop.

Whether it’s the Roughriders or the Renegades, Ottawa fans have now twice faced a divorce from their beloved team. Sure, the first marriage lasted a heck of a long time, until 1996, which made the hurt all the more painful. And then, just when the old fans were feeling comfortable about expressing their love for the new arrival, they get left at the altar 10 years later.

And the league thinks the fans are going to welcome the team back after one year off?

Take one year, take 10 years, take however long you want. If once bitten, twice shy is the old adage, what’s the formula when you’ve had two chunks taken out of you? Oh yeah, it starts fool me once…

The league has to be insane if they think that the fans are just going to walk back into Frank Clair Stadium and pick up where they left off. There’s too much mistrust to get personally involved.

Look at the example set by the Montreal Alouettes. Despite a team that was consistently able to beat the bushes and find superlative talent, Montrealers refused to support the team in any substantive way and ended up losing Nos Amours to Washington. However, it wasn’t for a lack of passion in baseball or a lack of enjoyment of the spectacle – opening day crowds can attest to that. It’s just that fans were tired of being told that their team was going to leave.

The situation denigrated into a constant cacophony of how terrible the stadium was, how the team couldn’t compete in the fiscal environment, and how the players were just going to end up leaving anyway. Montreal’s own Gleibermanesque Jeff Loria promised the moon – a downtown stadium on land whose lease he allowed to lapse – before delivering the knockout blow and putting Montreal baseball to sleep for good.

While sports is a business, there’s so much more to it than just that. To run a successful sports franchise you need not only savvy business and personnel people in place, you need a fan base that feels attached to the team, feels a sense of ownership and pride in the organization, and feels invested in the product on the field. It’s hard to get the fans to stand firm when you keep pulling the rug out from under their feet.

Look at how Montreal has rebounded since the return of the Alouettes. When the Concorde left, the thought was that football was gone from that town for good. But with the failed American expansion behind them and the absorption of the former Baltimore franchise, Montreal’s CFL brass made all the right moves. They embraced the history of the team by reverting to the Alouettes name, instead of choosing the failed Concordes moniker or an all-new title. They moved to the cozy confines of McGill’s football stadium to turn a night at the football game into an event. And they encouraged their players to go out into the community and be a part of life in the city.

The Renegades? They should have Horned Mr. Chen and obtained the rights to the Roughriders title. And the last thing they should have done is shelved the team for the year.

The league’s commitment to finding solid, long-term local ownership is admirable. However, the decision to suspend operations and disperse the players through the league (and the unemployment line) is short-sighted at best. Like Toronto and Hamilton in the recent past, the league should have ponied up the dough to maintain operations.

Who’s to say that after a year off, the fans are going to want to come back? What will they be coming back to? Nothing more than an expansion team with new, poorer-quality players, and an immediate future that looks bleak. Why are they going to invest their time, money, and – most importantly – passion in a situation that’s proven to be folly in the past?

Like in any marriage, it’s easier to work things out together than to come back after a separation. Unfortunately for the Ottawa fans, this marriage appears to be going down the road to divorce because of irreconcilable differences.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Expansion End Zone Lies East

By Jason Menard

While the Village People may have implored us to Go West, when it comes to CFL action the sun – and the setting – rises in the East.

In light of Tom Wright’s recent meeting with Windsor mayor Eddie Francis regarding the possibility of the border city becoming the 10 th Canadian Football League franchise, and the fact that the league seems to be enjoying resurgent popularity, naturally discussion will arise about expansion. This, along with Wright’s professed desire to see a 10 th franchise in place by the end of the decade to balance the notoriously complicated schedule, shows that the time is now for interested cities to make their move.

Unfortunately for Windsorites, their city isn’t the best choice — in fact, it’s only the third-best option in their province. And the best two choices reside farther east than Ontario. And when it comes to making a decision with both one’s heart and one’s head, Halifax emerges as the clear front-runner.

There are a number of factors that the league must consider when choosing an appropriate venue for expansion. Once bitten, twice shy doesn’t apply here – the league was devoured by the experience that was then-commissioner Larry Smith’s foray south of the border in 1993-1995. Fortunately for the league, they have a surplus of worthy locations from which to choose.

Halifax makes sense on a number of fronts. Insiders have long whispered their desire to see a franchise based in Nova Scotia to take advantage of an untapped market and to fulfill the league’s wish to be a truly Canadian entity. Geographically, the team will also help balance out the divisions without requiring realignment or disturbing traditional rivalries.

The biggest problem – and this is the same for all potential locations – is the lack of a suitable stadium. While the region has long supported university pigskin, there is no location currently capable of meeting the needs of a CFL franchise long-term. Local ownership would either have to build a stadium or enter into a Montreal Alouette/McGill-like agreement to upgrade St. Mary’s facility.

And while Halifax falls behind other expansion candidates such as Quebec City and London in terms of population, the team would absolutely have to be marketed as a regional representative – akin to Regina’s Roughriders adopting the Saskatchewan moniker. A team under the Atlantic brand would be embraced by all the Eastern provinces.

Failing that, the league should turn its attention to Quebec City. Canada’s seventh-largest metropolitan area, the capital of la belle province boasts a potential market of almost 700,000. As well, amateur and collegiate football enjoys a passionate support that markets Ontario-west could only dream of. One only has to turn to the support that Laval receives in the CIS to see that the market is starved. And, despite the loss of the NHL’s Nordiques, the region has proven that it will support professional sports. Add to that the built-in rivalry with the Alouettes and you have a recipe for long-term success.

While Windsor is getting the press, two other Ontario markets are more deserving – London (10 th largest) and Kitchener/Waterloo (11 th), with the Forest City coming out in front. London, with its metropolitan population of 416,000 sits in the middle of southwestern Ontario. Within a comfortable two-hour drive, the team could pull fans from Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, and Toronto. Again, facilities come into play at this location, but the recently built TD Waterhouse Stadium should be able to be upgraded to meet the needs of the team – of course, with the participation of the University of Western Ontario.

And finally, the blossoming Kitchener/Waterloo region is also an alternative, offering a short drive from Toronto, London, and Hamilton, and a blossoming economy. Both London and the K/W region would create intense regional rivalries with the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and, again, create balance in the divisions without disturbing existing arrangements.

Financially, some of the risk has been alleviated with the league’s recent acceptance of a hard salary cap. With the ever-popular buzz-word cost certainty established, it allows the league to be a little more risky with its expansion choice. By enabling the decision to be partially emotionally based, as opposed to strictly financially motivated, Wright has the opportunity not just to make the safe field goal attempt – he can be bold and score a game-winning touchdown.

The clear choice is Halifax. Wright’s legacy can be one of creating a league that pans the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And, finally, we will have a league that truly deserves to bear the designation Canadian.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

CFL Needs to Put a Cap on Its Success

By Jason Menard

For the Canadian Football League to remain viable for years to come, the owners have to come to their senses and realize that long-term prosperity comes from putting a cap on their success.

The CFL hasn’t been this healthy for years, which is a remarkable recovery for a league that just a decade ago arguably was on life support. Solid ownership across the league has transformed shaky franchises into cornerstones for the league. New ownership groups in Hamilton and Ottawa offer hope – and deep pockets – to build for the future. Heck, even in Toronto, despite its terrible venue and fourth-sport status, the Argonauts are starting to draw.

And while the league’s owners may be content to keep riding the gravy train, they have to realize that unless someone’s controlling the direction and keeping the speed regulated, they could end up crashing in the not-too-distant future.

The CFL is plagued by two problems: competitive balance and financial stability. However, the two are inexorably intertwined – or at least the latter directly impacts the former. Right now the number $2.6 million is floated around – but in true CFLian fashion, there’s not even a consensus as to whether that’s a cap, a suggested competitive balance threshold, or just a proposed spending guideline to use as a starting point.

As such, some teams adhere to the $2.6 number religiously, while other franchises find ways around the number by offering personal service contracts, guaranteeing ancillary income through radio or television shows, or finding other perks to inflate the value of a contract without it showing up on the team’s payroll.

In the end, the fans lose. Certain teams are able to spend seemingly at will to stock their rosters, while other clubs have to scrimp and save – and even in an eight-team league there are franchises that right now have no hope of raising the Grey Cup.

A hard cap just makes sense for this league. And that’s why the Board of Governors should leap at the suggestion when and if Commissioner Tom Wright brings it to the table at the league meetings in Phoenix.

By enforcing a hard cap across the clubs, you’re ensuring a level playing field and curbing the inflationary impact that inflated salaries can have on the league’s finances. And, if some form of revenue sharing is not included in the formula, then those teams with the extra finances can leverage that advantage for their most important customers – the fans.

Extra money that would have been diverted into payroll could instead be funneled into stadium improvements, enhancing the fan experience, and more aggressive sales and marketing plans. And for a league that’s driven by gate revenue, a salary cap offers owners the security of a defined expenditure amount around which they can budget accordingly.

And what the existence of a stable cap could mean is the addition of franchises to a league built on a solid foundation. Instead of the haphazard, grab-the-American-money-while-you-can expansion orgy of times past, a hard cap could entice investors from other parts of Canada who are looking to get into the league. The league has long floated the trial balloon of franchises in Quebec City and somewhere in the Atlantic provinces. A cap could make these dreams a reality.

By putting a cap on its current success, the league could open an opportunity for even greater prosperity in the future. Think of the possibilities of a league that stretches ad mare usque ad mare. Imagine the instant rivalry forged between the Montreal Alouettes and a new Quebec City-based franchise. Think of the potential revenue that can be exploited by those football-mad Maritimers who have shown so much support for the university game.

And, for the players, think of the extra guaranteed jobs. A cap may put a ceiling on their immediate earnings, but it could allow for the creation of extra positions – either through new franchises, or more immediately through the addition of another import and non-import roster spot.

Enforcement is always a question, but those that exceed the salary cap could face an immediate loss of a draft pick in the Canadian amateur draft. More than the imports, Canadian players are the lifeblood of any successful franchise due to the existence of the Canadian player ratio – so the threat of losing out on young Canuck talent should be enough to keep even the most adventurous owner in line.

The idea of a hard cap just makes too much sense for the league – let’s just hope the owners don’t drop the ball on this one.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

A Tale of Two Jesses

By Jason Menard

It truly is our game – even if its stars aren’t from our native soil. But two CFL signings – a tale of two Jesses you may say — may go a long way to dispel the idea that Canadians can’t play the skill positions. Or they may simply show that marrying Can Con with winning is a double-edged sword.

Sharp move: The Hamilton Tiger-Cats recently stepped up and picked up Jesse Lumsden, a Hamilton fixture and recent cut from the Seattle Seahawks. Dull edge: the Ottawa Renegades, faltering under the shaky leadership of current pivot Kerry Joseph, are falling all over themselves to bring home local boy Jesse Palmer.

Yes, the former Roughriders are looking to get hitched to The Bachelor. Ottawa-born Jesse Palmer finally got the axe from the New York Giants, and CFL teams have begun sniffing around him. Leading the pack are the Renegades, who have made no secret of their desire to land their native son and put him under centre.

But the question remains, are they doing it to put points on the scoreboard or butts in the seats? The real winner in the Renegades’ full-court courtship of Palmer? The Montreal Alouettes, Palmer’s current rights holders. So once the Alouettes coax their king’s ransom from Ottawa and pocket their draft picks, will the Renegades be any better?

Probably not. And what happens to the fan base when the novelty wears off and the franchise fails to improve?

The CFL is a mobile man’s game. Check out around the league and most of the best quarterbacks are as proficient with their legs as they are with their arms. Thanks to the wider field and larger end zones, the Canadian game is far more wide-open, and more pass-happy. As such, quarterbacks can be much more dangerous using their legs and finding holes in the defence. The exception to the rule is Montreal’s Anthony Calvillo, whose feet of stone are balanced by a rocket arm.

So what does Palmer bring to the plate other than name recognition and a noticeable lack of mileage due to his proficiency in riding the pine? Not much, but name value is enough in this league. Heck, if head cases Andre Rison and Lawrence Phillips can get back into the game based on marquee value, then a good Canadian boy should be able to as well.

On the flip side, Lumsden’s signing makes sense for so many reasons. But, most importantly, his value to the team means more on the field than off. Of course, the Tiger-Cats will benefit from this Jesse’s name recognition, starring for so many years in the McMaster Marauder backfield, but it’s his on-the-field prowess that will mean the most. What Lumsden brings to the table is not just his talent, which will find him playing an increased role next year, but the fact that he is a ratio-breaker in a complimentary position. And, the fact that he’s coming in as a back-up gives the Tiger-Cats more flexibility in his progression.

Simply put Lumsden, the son of former CFL star Neil Lumsdsen, is a ratio-breaker. As per CFL rules, there are a certain number of Canadians who must be on the active roster. Usually these Canucks populate the lines or linebacking core, with a few odd Canadians appearing in so-called skill positions. Rarely do you find Canadians in the position of tailback. Former Mount Allison standout Eric Lapointe has kicked around the CFL, but without any great success. On the defensive side of the ball, Davis Sanchez is another ratio-breaker manning the corners for the Eskimos.

Tailbacks in the CFL are a luxury. Quarterbacks are an essential. To put any player under centre in the CFL just because of name recognition is a risky proposition. For an Ottawa franchise that can’t seem to keep its head above water, marrying their fortunes to Palmer as a starting quarterback could end up divorcing them from Grey Cup contention.

Despite the risks to the individual teams, however, the greatest part of this discussion may be the fact that more Canadian kids will get a look for non-traditional roles. There is no reason why each and every CFL squad couldn’t take a talented Canuck pivot and make him their third-stringers. A Larry Jusdanis or Chris Palmer would have served just as good as any American quarterback in a back-up role, and the increased recognition could help the Canadian game.

As it stands, Palmer is getting preferential treatment in his rise to the top because of his place of birth. Just as a team not looking at Canadians in the past was bad, simply anointing a player the saviour due to his nationality is equally as wrong.

In the end, maybe we’ll get to a point where a CFL quarterback isn’t chosen because of his birth certificate, but rather his potential.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved