Tag Archives: football

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

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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

Lions and Tiger-Cats and Gliebermans! Oh, my!

By Jason Menard

As the Canadian Football League looks to steer itself into the future, rumours abound that they may be doing so with a new person behind the wheel. And, just like always, the CFL finds itself at a crossroads.

So who should be behind the wheel as driving force behind Canadian pigskin? May I offer my services? I’d work [relatively] cheap (important for a league that likes to pinch its pennies for anything other than player contracts) and I know the game – and we’ve seen what happens to leagues where the commissioner isn’t a fan, right Mr. Bettman?

Maybe it’s the fact that there are more men on the field, or the balls are bigger (wait, did I say that out loud – this is turning into an entirely different column), but I love the Canadian game. Admittedly, the talent level isn’t as strong as the NFL, but there is much to be said for the excitement that three-down football brings to the table.

Over the past few seasons, the CFL has found itself on an upswing all across the country. Toronto and Hamilton — historically strong markets that have seen lean years recently – are now enjoying resurgent fan interest backed by solid leadership. The Montreal Alouettes, resurrected from the dead, are a model on how to integrate the team to the community, and play to packed houses in one of the most dynamic stadiums in the league. And Western support, save for B.C., continues to be the foundation upon which the league is built.

Yet, that foundation is starting to show some cracks. And, while not yet in dire straights, there are some troubling signs that the league could start slipping back into the malaise that plagued it in the late 80s and 1990s.

It seems that when the CFL begins to taste a little bit of success, they lose their grip on reality and start slipping into the abyss. Another resurrected franchise, the Ottawa Renegades, is in ownership turmoil – on the verge of bringing back the, uhm, eclectic Glieberman clan to the helm. The salary cap is riddled with holes, and spiraling salaries are harkening memories of the Raghib Ismail personal-service contract days.

So how do we fix a game that’s not broken, but is slowly steering its way towards a brick wall? Here are five easy steps.

1. Install and enforce a salary cap with bite: OK, right there, I’ve excluded myself from consideration for the post, because there’s no way that the CFL owners will hire someone who will curb their free-spending ways. The issue, however, is the same that plagued the league in the 80s and 90s.

The CFL can’t compete with the big boys on a financial level, and by trying only exacerbates the tenuous financial situation these teams are in. We are not the NFL, so we can’t play on the same level. However, we are an exciting game, rich in history, and offer an attractive destination for those players who may be too small, a millisecond too slow, or overlooked in their NFL pursuits.

The league needs to cut back on the ancillary revenue that these teams can offer. Under-the-table deals for off-season work, radio shows, or other forms of compensation exist. Either ban them, or declare it as a benefit of playing for that team, and let teams use it as a recruiting tool (much like New York and L.A.-based teams try to sell their stars on the advertising potential of their towns). Whichever way the owners decide, it should be above the table.

And if you exceed the salary cap? The league needs to come down hard with penalties that have bite. Having quality Canadian content is key in the CFL, so abusers of the cap should be subject to losing a pick in the Canadian college draft. Or maybe they lose their designated import position for a period of time. Both ideas will give pause to those considering ways to circumvent the rules.

2. Expand: Oh, but didn’t we learn anything from the failed American expansion? Well, yes – that’s don’t expand into the States. However, there are two markets just ripe for the exploiting: Quebec City and the East Coast.

It’s a little hard to refer to the CFL as a Canadian league when the furthest east it reaches is 475 Pine Ave. W. in Montreal. To be a truly national league, it needs to have representation all the way to the Atlantic provinces. On top of that, Quebec and the Maritimes are football-mad locations that would support franchises long into the future.

Quebec is a hot-bed for junior-aged football and a second team would be able to tap into that ravenous market. And the support the Atlantic provinces give to their university programs is unparalleled. Location has always been an issue, but Halifax and Moncton could be considered worthy candidates to host a team. And, following the lead of the Green Riders, they could represent either their province or region, as opposed to identifying themselves with one city.

There have been whispers that cities like London and Mississauga, Ontario could be considered in the future, but the sustainable market just doesn’t seem to be there. If London could draw the Windsor-Kitchener traffic, it could make a go of it, while Mississauga would potentially cannibalize the Toronto/Hamilton fan bases. Either way, there are more attractive options to explore east of Montreal.

3. Embrace the history: The CFL has a rich and glorious past that should be exploited. And, as many of our legends are home-grown, they should be featured prominently in any advertising campaigns and game-time ceremonies. What many other professional leagues do well is that they make their retired greats ambassadors for the team and the game. One may well ask, what happens to a retired CFLer?

And on that note, enough with this Renegades thing. Go track down Horn Chen and pry the Rough Riders name from his greedy little hands! Two teams with similar names in a nine-team league was part of the CFL’s caché – let’s bring it back.

4. Engage the community: A great deal of Montreal’s success since the corpse of the Concorde/Alouettes was exhumed has been a direct result of the management’s dedication to building strong community relations. The same can also be said for the Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg franchises, in that their fans embrace the team as an integral part of the community – not an afterthought as is the case in places like Vancouver and Toronto. More aggressive inclusionary tactics would help teams develop relevance in their communities, which translates into butts in the seats.

5. Support the game at a grass-roots level: Part of the NFL’s appeal stems from the fact that so many fans are also fans of the college game. They watch their favourites ply their trade in the NCAA, then make the natural progression into the NFL. By developing tighter relationships –in player development, marketing, and sponsorship – the CFL could go a long way in propping up the CIS. It’s not a quick fix and could take years to develop, but the reward in terms of fan acquisition and player development would be well worth it.

No matter who they hire, the CFL can’t afford to punt this opportunity away – not when a successful trip to the end zone is in sight!

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

More Dynasty Talk than at a Carrington Reunion

By Jason Menard

The Super Bowl is over, the New England Patriots are victorious, and with the cacophony of voices are bandying the word dynasty about in a way not seen since John Forsythe, Linda Evans, and Joan Collins shared the small screen.

Somewhere, the ghosts of the truly great teams are sitting back and laughing at us. What does it say about a culture when winning two out of three is considered dominant?

Put it this way, the Ming Dynasty didn’t just last for a few years, with a few changes of political leadership and social direction thrown in for good measure. A dynasty, by its very nature, combines ultimate dominance with longevity.

To return this to a sports level, the Montreal Canadiens of the 50s and 70s, with multiple Stanley Cup runs, were a dynasty. The New York Yankees of the 30s and 50s, they were dynasties too! The Patriots? Didn’t they miss the playoffs last year? Hardly the stuff of legends. Worst of all, we now come armed with ready-made excuses to qualify our hyperbolic statements. How many times have you heard the term “modern-day dynasty” lately?

Why do we feel compelled to anoint moderately successful teams with the moniker dynasty? Perhaps it’s a lack of self-confidence. Our incessant need for cultural self-validation has permeated almost every aspect of our lives and threatens to swallow us whole.

We live in a time where we feel the need to justify the actions of the here and now, all the while stumbling over each other in the desperate attempt to find the “next” big thing. It’s like a sixth-grader proclaiming that Justin Timberlake is the greatest artist ever, and that John Lennon guy is just so yesterday. It’s something we’ve all done, but fortunately we all grow up and gain perspective.

Why is it that we can’t appreciate the accomplishments of the past for what they are? Instead of trying to overwhelm historical dominance with over-hyped mediocrity, why can’t we instead raise the bar and hold ourselves to a higher ideal?

Turn on the TV and what do you get? Multiple versions of the same concept, from channel to channel. And don’t get so smug thinking that this is a dismissal of reality shows. In fact, reality shows are at least in touch with today’s cultural environment and are self-aware enough to know their place.

No sooner had the last American Idol wrapped did advertisements for the next round begin to crop up on our screens. Ruben, Clay? They’re over and done, who’s next? However, you watch the more critically acclaimed shows and they’re the worst sinners of all. How many versions of the same thing are there? We’re up to, what, 10 Law & Orders and 8 CSIs? How many sitcoms about dysfunctional family situations are there out there? Can you really tell the difference?

Our modern society is rapidly becoming the equivalent of a cultural garage sale. Shows casting a sly, sarcastic eye at the shows and personalities of the 80s and 90s are phenomenally popular. Movie adaptations of 70s TV shows abound – S.W.A.T., Charlie’s Angels, Starsky & Hutch (do we really need to relive that?). In 10 years, what are we going to look back on? Retrospectives of retrospectives?

Our cultural frame of reference is postcard sized. And that’s why we’re so quick to proclaim our current crop of cultural icons as the greatest. The problem is that the situation will not get better until we start looking at the bigger picture.

As long as we’re proclaiming every half-decent accomplishment as the Second Coming, then there’s no impetus to strive to new levels. However, when we start holding our cultural icons to a higher standard, then we will truly be able to hold our collective heads up high. There will no longer be a need to diminish the past, but rather we will be able to proudly stand side by side with them as equals.

The more we toss around the word dynasty, the cheaper it becomes. Let’s save the word for those that truly deserve it.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved