The second edition of the so-called Braley Bowl - a CFL battle between the B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts - kicks off Saturday at Vancouver's Empire Field.
Both are owned by Canadian Senator David Braley, and the optics of one man controlling two clubs in an eight-team circuit remains an awkward subject for the league. But it appears as though the Braley Bowl series could be discontinued, because many in the CFL suspect the Burlington, Ont., businessman is preparing to sell the Lions - perhaps as soon as next year.
According to several sources, current Lions president Dennis Skulsky is assembling a group of local investors interested in purchasing the team. Skulsky's group, which presumably includes members of the Waterboys booster club, will present itself as the custodian of Bob Ackles's legacy.
If successful, it is believed Skulsky would become the group's managing partner and continue to run the club.
Ackles, the former Lions president who died in July of 2008, was considered B.C.'s Mr. Football and re-established the franchise's good name after years of mismanagement. In 2003, with Skulsky's help, Ackles founded the Waterboys, which consists of Lower Mainland business leaders that support the club, a key step in recasting the Lions as a community-minded enterprise.
But Skulsky's group is not alone.
The NHL's Vancouver Canucks, owned by the Aqulini family, are also interested in the CFL team, viewing it as a way to strengthen their hold on the sports-and-entertainment dollar in the city. As is a Vancouver Island group led by Nanaimo, B.C., businessman Hadi Abassi, who owns roof truss and window companies, as well as a junior football franchise and a lacrosse team.
Many believe a sale is imminent because the 69-year-old Braley is perhaps getting to an age where it no longer makes sense to own a football team on the other end of the country. (He took full control of the Argonauts prior to the 2010 season.)
His travel schedule is not as flexible these days because he now has duties in Ottawa after being named to the Senate in May. In the past, there has also been speculation Braley might hand the Vancouver-based team to his son, Robert, who attended a Lions game earlier this season, and is becoming more visible at CFL events.
One source said a sale is likely to take place after the 2011 Grey Cup in Vancouver, because a buyer would have to pony up an extra $5-million - roughly the amount Braley can expect in Grey Cup profits - to complete a purchase before next November.
The potential for a bidding war is in stark contrast to the environment in 1996, when former CFL commissioner Larry Smith could not find a single British Columbian who would touch Lions, and ultimately brokered a sale to Braley. It also suggests that for the first time in years, a CFL team will sell for real money, and a renovated B.C. Place Stadium, scheduled for completion next year, will certainly increase the Lions' value.
Unquestionably, Braley saved the franchise, and by extension the CFL, by buying the Leos, but he has also been known to throw his immense weight around the board of governors table, so he won't be pressured into a sale. Two commissioners - Tom Wright and Michael Lysko - left office after feuds with Braley, and current commissioner Mark Cohon remains politically wise to the pitfalls of challenging the league's most influential figure.
"One of our league's most important goals is achieving financial viability for every team in every market, and David Braley is in the very early stages of working to achieve that goal in Toronto," Cohon said by e-mail this week, when asked how long Braley's dual ownership could continue.
"The B.C. Lions have made tremendous strides in this regard under his ownership, and our governors are firm in the belief David is the right person to achieve similar results in Toronto."