And so the Canadian Football League may head south once again. Doesn't that notion bring back memories.
The high hopes of the first game in Sacramento, where Doug Flutie duelled with David Archer, and the locals seemed to enjoy it. The humiliation of the teams that never were, in San Antonio (the first time around) and Orlando, home of the famous phantom news conference. The running embarrassments in Memphis and Shreveport. The unpaid salaries in Birmingham.
The Baltimore Stallions rolling to a Grey Cup win at Taylor Field in Regina, the first time a U.S. team captured the championship of Canadian football, which instead of being the beginning, was the end.
What followed after the great retreat and retrenchment was a sense of false security hereabouts, a false comfort in the fact that the CFL was back where it belonged, back where it was understood, back where it was appreciated. Now everything would be fine, and there would be no more cockamamie experiments in exotic locales. The game could return to its roots, the business could shrink to the dimensions of the Canadian market, and it would be as though there had never been a Pepper Rogers, the coach of the Memphis Mad Dogs.
They're all lovely sentiments, except that in real life clocks don't roll back. The same grim realities that forced the CFL to expand too quickly and too recklessly then have not much changed, except for the addition of a bogeyman waiting in the wings in the person of wrestling's Vince McMahon.
Even with salaries cut to bare bones levels (the minimum stipend in the CFL now is $28,000), and with the CFL head office running far more efficiently, the league's basic, gate-driven, dollars-in-dollars-out equation doesn't make business sense. Nobody makes money, and nobody really has the potential to make money as the league is structured, barring a massive national rekindling of interest (which seems unlikely.) The losses might not amount to much for wealthy hobbyists such as Montreal owner Robert Wetenhall, but others, including the community-operated teams on the prairies, can't operate in a state of perpetual debt.
So what's Plan B?
When then-commissioner Larry Smith was asked that question as the CFL stood on death's doorstep, he chose to adopt the idea proposed by some of the league's more high-flying owners -- U.S. expansion. It was badly executed, huge mistakes were made, and Smith had an unfortunate tendency to blue sky even the worst disasters -- but, in his defence, time was of the essence. Without that infusion of cash (including the infusion from owners of Canadian-based teams who were paying the bills only because they were gambling on expansion succeeding) the CFL would have died then and there.
If the U.S. gambit achieved nothing else, it bought the league time. And now it seems that time has just about run out.
McMahon's new XFL may not survive for long, but it only has to kick off to cause the CFL significant headaches in terms of talent and salaries. Expansion into other Canadian markets is a comforting thought, but the fact is there are no suitable stadiums in Halifax and Quebec City, and that in Ottawa it wasn't a coincidence that only the absentee Gliebermans were willing to operate the previous franchise and pay the bills. All three markets are at best problematic, and no one setting up shop in any of them is going to ante up a significant franchise fee -- nor does adding Canadian cities open up the possibility of new television revenues.
The CFL's current president, Jeff Giles, isn't waiting until the last possible, desperate moment before proposing what is going to seem to a lot of people like a last-ditch solution. Merely raising the spectre of another foray into the United States is going to invite ridicule all around. And, given what happened the last time, who thinks that even with better planning and better ownership, U.S. expansion is an even-money proposition to succeed?
But let's hear a better idea. Pay the players even less, with a new competitor on the horizon? Shrink the league back to 1950s' dimensions, thereby taking yourself out of Toronto (where there's no suitable venue), and likely out of any kind of a national television contract? Go all Canadian -- and enjoy the same kind of box office success experienced by Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union teams, and the Vanier Cup?
Go south, and risk disaster in Syracuse, or Columbus, or Portland? It's painful even to contemplate, but it may well come to that. Stephen Brunt can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org