Well, it’s the Fourth of July weekend and you know what that means…that’s right, the Ligue canadienne de football launches its 2009 season. Or, to translate for the English-speaking rabble, the Canadian Football League (CFL) begins its 51st year of play on Wednesday.
I like the CFL for a number of reasons but mostly because it’s the only professional football league to go up against the NFL and survive as a separate entity. More on that anon.
According to one legend, North American football began when McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Republic of Canada) traveled south to play Harvard (Cambridge, Same Sex Marriage, Department of Massachusetts). The year was 1874, and the game was some sort of rugby football derivative.
Harvard and McGill played home and home series and home team rules prevailed. Harvard didn’t have enough yard for a standard rugby pitch and therefore played with 11 men, four downs, and a field dimension of 100 yards by 50 yards. When at McGill, teams used 15 players, 3 downs, and played on a bigger pitch. One hundred thirty-five years later, Norv Turner is coaching the San Diego Chargers.
As of Wednesday, the CFL had eight teams split between two divisions, East and West. Teams play 18 games over 19 weeks (one bye week), followed by a two-week playoff and then the Grey Cup. This year the season opens on July 1 and concludes with the championship game on November 29.
The CFL was officially founded in 1958. There is much more to its origins, but, frankly, I don’t care and I don’t have the space to bore you with it. Here’s the main point: although the CFL has been down to its last dime as a more or less constant state of being, they’re still with us.
There was a time during the 1950s and ’60s when the CFL could make a case as being on par with the NFL. Both leagues got most of their money from ticket sales, which evened their revenue streams considerably. In 1958 there were 12 NFL teams and 9 CFL teams. Records of one league were counted as good by the other. The NFL used to play exhibition games with the CFL. The last time an NFL team to played a CFL team was in August of 1961 — the Chicago Bears beat the Montreal Alouettes 34 to 16.
Then came television and television contracts. The CFL and NFL no longer occupied the same universe, and the difference is profound. This year the salary cap in the CFL is $4.2 million for an entire team. The NFL’s salary cap is $128 million per team. A franchise in the NFL is worth $1 billion; in the CFL a franchise is worth $5 to $10 million.
If you like underdogs, you’ve got to like what the CFL tried to pull off in the early 1990s, slipping across the border in 1993 and setting up a club (Sacramento Gold Miners) in the U.S. of A. The following year the CFL established the Las Vegas Posse, Baltimore Stallions, and Shreveport Pirates. In 1995, the CFL organized an American South Division starring the Birmingham Barracudas, Memphis Mad Dogs, and Miami Manatees. Some teams never took the field, some moved, some folded, and the American adventure ended after the 1995 season. Not, however, before the Baltimore Stallions won the Grey Cup.
The CFL was back to being all Canadian. The league had nine franchises remaining. The Ottawa Rough Riders, founded in 1876, folded. The Ottawa Renegades, formed in 2002, suspended operations three years later. The Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats were bankrupt in 2003.
So, what’s new?
News broke that David Braley, 68, Orlick Industries tycoon and current owner of the B.C. Lions (former owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, former chair of the CFL’s board of governors, former CFL interim commissioner, and longtime big-time league power broker), had loaned the new owners of the Toronto Argonauts (David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski) $1 million to help them buy the team and bring it out of bankruptcy. The storied Toronto Argonauts, home team to the largest city in Canada, was sold for an unbelievable $2 million, which also happens to be the 2008 salary of Stephen Cooper, a journeyman Chargers linebacker. Braley fronted half of that $2 million and underwrote half the operating losses. This was done in secret. The CFL commissioner didn’t know, and the public didn’t know that one team owner loaned substantial money to a competitor. Turns out Braley helped other CFL teams with his money at least five other times.
The Sporting World wants to know the league’s, and indeed, the public’s response to this secret financial cabal.
Okay, here it is: “Thank you.”