On Thursday, CFL governors gathered in Toronto for a secret meeting called by rookie commissioner Mark Cohon. The urgent gathering was called to deal with a subject that has dominated football talk across Canada for the past two weeks: How will the CFL handle what is an increasingly inevitable invasion of the NFL into Canada?
There is talk of the Toronto Argonauts trying to form a business relationship with a proposed NFL team. There is a suggestion of a spring-summer season for the CFL, which would culminate with the Grey Cup on Labour Day weekend to accommodate the NFL's September kickoff.
The Thursday meeting took place two days after Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson stood in front of his fellow NFL owners at a league meeting in Philadelphia and presented a plan to hold eight games over a five-year period at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, beginning in 2008. This weekend, Larry Tanenbaum and Dale Lastman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment are being joined by Paul Godfrey and Phil Lind of Rogers Communications in London, where the NFL is holding a regular-season game between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium.
Just more than a year after Tanenbaum, Godfrey and Ted Rogers told a news conference they were turning up the heat on their campaign to bring the NFL to Toronto, the issue reached the tipping point this week. It's no longer a pipe dream. It's a touch down in T.O.
When David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski purchased the Toronto Argonauts out of bankruptcy several years ago, the notion of the NFL coming to Toronto had been around for at least three decades. But things have changed with the Bills' announcement.
Consider the short list of people who believe the arrival of a Toronto NFL franchise nothing short of a certainty: Sokolowski and Cynamon, Cohon, his predecessor Tom Wright and Wright's predecessor, Michael Lysko.
"I do think the NFL is coming," Wright said this week. "And if there isn't a well-thought-out and collaborative plan, then it will have significant consequences for the CFL. You have to have a plan and make sure the NFL is part of that plan.
"I don't think [it]is the death knell. But if the league does the ostrich thing then it would be."
Coming up with smart, unified stands on complex issues has never been a strength of the CFL board of governors. And last week provided a glimpse into the challenges Cohon faces when B.C. Lions owner David Braley suggested fans in Western Canada might boycott Rogers products if Ted Rogers played a role in bringing an NFL team to Toronto - despite the fact Rogers is a major CFL sponsor. Meanwhile, others in the league suggested the Argos might survive a post-NFL world by moving to a phantom stadium in Mississauga.
Since taking office this past spring, Cohon has believed that the NFL threat to Toronto is real and that the CFL must develop a co-existence strategy it can sell to the larger league.
"I would be putting a [co-existence]plan in front of the NFL commissioner right away," said Mark Harrison, the president of Trojanone sports marketing in Toronto, which handled sponsorship for Toronto's last NFL exhibition game in 1997. "Because if the NFL is not partners with the Argos, there are no Argos."
That's presumably what the governors discussed on Thursday. A report several weeks ago revealed that the Argos' owners had spoken to Cohon and other league governors about buying an NFL team for Toronto. Then came the Bills' plans and the news that the NFL was closer than anybody thought. Also, there is the reality that when an NFL team comes, it won't be under the stewardship of the Argos.
It's the other big players on the Toronto sports scene - Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum that have the inside track on bringing an NFL team to town. They might need some extra financial muscle - the Bills are valued at $821-million (U.S.) - and word is Edmonton billionaire Darryl Katz is being courted.
One of the players in the Rogers-Tanenbaum group, Godfrey, certainly talks a good game when it comes to the CFL's history, Canadian identity and cultural significance. And yet Godfrey can be seen each year during Super Bowl week, shaking hands at league and corporate functions, letting everyone know that Toronto is ready, willing and able whenever the NFL says its coming.
For a long time, it appeared that day might never happen. But Godfrey and company got a very good break when the NFL appointed Roger Goodell as its new commissioner in August of 2006, succeeding the 17-year reign of Paul Tagliabue.
Though the NFL had enjoyed tremendous growth under Tagliabue, Goodell quickly demonstrated he was not beholden to all of the ideas and methods of his predecessor. And as a former director of international development for the NFL, much of his focus is on building its brand outside of the United States. That's why tomorrow's game in London will be the first regular-season contest played outside North America.
One month after Goodell was introduced as the new NFL commissioner, Godfrey, Tanenbaum and Rogers held a news conference in Toronto to formally announce they were teaming up to bring an NFL team to Toronto. Another member of their group, Rogers Communications executive Lind, is a Cleveland Browns season-ticket holder.
Rogers and Tanenbaum alone might have the wealth to buy an NFL team. But word has spread that the two have actively pursued additional financing, perhaps from Katz, the Edmonton drug-store magnate who has made three separate offers to buy the Edmonton Oilers this year. Katz, listed by Forbes magazine as the 538th richest man on the planet in 2007 with a net worth of $1.9-billion (U.S.), could not be reached for comment this week.
Regardless of who pays the freight, the cost of bringing an NFL team to Toronto has conveniently decreased over the past five years by 50 per cent, thanks to the soaring Canadian dollar.
The NFL, however, isn't talking expansion. But relocation? Well, that's a different story. In fact, there are believed to be several teams that might be looking to move in the not-too-distant future. New Orleans, where the city is still dealing with the fallout from hurricane Katrina. Jacksonville, a small-market where ticket sales remain slow. Minnesota, where the drive for a new stadium is stalled. And Buffalo, where Wilson has been telling everyone for some time that his team will be pressed hard to stay in Western New York for long.
On Tuesday, Wilson was front and centre at the NFL owners' fall meetings, where he pitched his partners on the idea of the Bills playing two dates a year in Toronto, starting in 2008.
While a formal vote won't be taken for months, the overwhelming sentiment from Wilson's fellow owners was positive.
The Bills' initiative may have caught Canadian sports fans off-guard, but it wasn't as surprising to those who've been watching the team's plight in Buffalo of late and what Wilson has been saying about it.
The Bills are in many ways a relic from another time in professional sports, before television, luxury suites, huge corporate revenues and franchise values measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. Wilson paid $25,000 for the Bills in 1960 to be part of what was then the American Football League, then rode the wave of prosperity through the merger with the NFL, the boon of television revenue and the prosperity associated with owning a piece of the dominant sports league in North America. But while the NFL as a business has mushroomed into an 800-pound gorilla, Buffalo as a city hasn't kept up with the times. Because of its slow economy and shrinking population, the Bills have the lowest ticket prices in the NFL, don't sell out many dates and have unsold corporate boxes and club seats as well.
It is a common myth that the NFL has complete economic parity among its clubs by sharing its wealth equally among all 32 partners. Television revenue, the league's largest source of income, is divided into equal shares among the clubs. But local revenue, which have become a much larger part of the picture in recent years, is not.
"People simply cannot afford to pay us what they pay in other cities," Wilson said at the time.
How many years Wilson himself has left is a topic that gets lots of attention in Buffalo these days.
The Bills' owner has made it clear he will not sell the team before his death and his family has no interest in owning it once he's gone. Instead, his estate will sell the Bills to the highest bidder.
There was a time when Los Angeles seemed like the likely destination for the Bills. But Goodell, who was Tagliabue's point man on re-establishing a team in the Los Angeles area, has taken the issue off the front burner until the city builds a stadium and settles on one ownership group.
Plus, according to one source familiar with NFL thinking on franchise movement, the league would much rather see a team like Buffalo relocated close to its roots than on the other side of the country.
Buffalo Bills fans won't have to go near that far to see their team when it plays at the 53,306-seat Rogers Centre next fall. No, that will require just a drive across the border and less than two hours up the highway, for the chance to see a both a football game and a likely glimpse of the future.
Chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA's Toronto Raptors. Announced partnership with Rogers Communications chairman Ted Rogers in September of 2006 to pursue an NFL team for Toronto. Is in London this weekend attending the Dolphins-Giants game.
Chief executive officer of Rogers Communications, which owns both Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays and the Rogers Centre. Announced partnership with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum in September of 2006 to pursue an NFL team for Toronto.
Former Metro Toronto chairman, newspaper publisher and current president of the Blue Jays. Has been working behind the scenes for three decades in hopes of landing an NFL team for Toronto. Is in London this weekend attending the Miami-New York game.
Argonauts co-owner bought the team in the fall of 2003 and attempted to build a new stadium at two different sites before deciding to keep the team at Rogers Centre. Along with partner Howard Sokolowski has investigated the possibility of trying to buy an NFL team to pre-empt its arrival under rival ownership. HOWARD SOKOLOWSKI
Argonauts co-owner bought the team in the fall of 2003 and attempted to build a new stadium at two different sites before deciding to keep the team at Rogers Centre. Along with partner Cynamon has investigated the possibility of trying to buy an NFL team to pre-empt its arrival under rival ownership. RALPH WILSON
Founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, which he purchased for $25,000. Has been outspoken about inadequate revenue sharing among NFL clubs, which he insists could force the Bills to leave Buffalo. Wilson, 89, has said repeatedly that his team will be sold to the highest bidder after his death.
CFL commissioner was well aware of the potential threat of the NFL coming to Toronto when he took office in the spring. Has been advocating that the league take a proactive position on the NFL's coming to Toronto, striking a partnership with the NFL aimed at coexistence with the Argos.
Billionaire drug-store operator based in Edmonton is believed to have been approached to join Rogers and Tanenbaum in financing a Toronto NFL team. Tried this past summer to buy the NHL's Edmonton Oilers for $185-million, but was turned down.
1960 as charter member
of American Football League.
Ralph Wilson, who bought team in 1959 for $25,000 U.S.
Ralph Wilson Stadium, built in 1973, and owned by Erie County.
Super Bowl titles
In 1873, Toronto Argonauts
Football club formed as part
of Argonaut Rowing Club.
Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon, who purchased team out of bankruptcy in October
Rogers Centre, built in 1989 and owned by Rogers Communications.
About $600-million to build;
purchased by Rogers for
$25-million in November of 2004.
Grey Cup titles
IN THE BACKROOMS NFL'S GROWTH IN CANADA
Montreal city councillor Gerald Snyder, who was Mayor Jean Drapeau's one-man delegation to the Major League Baseball meetings in 1968 that resulted in the city being awarded a National League franchise, was also active in pursuing an NFL team for the city as far back as 1963. Montreal made an unsuccessful bid to host the 1977 Super Bowl. In 1978, Snyder and Drapeau travelled to the Super Bowl in Miami to lobby for a franchise. In 1982, Snyder was confident the league was going to grant the city an expansion team. As recently as 1989, he was actively engaged in attempting to acquire an expansion franchise - at the time with the sponsorship of Labatt Breweries.
In February of 1989, Paul Godfrey and other Toronto Sun newspaper executives announced that, in partnership with Carling O'Keefe Breweries, they had been seeking an NFL franchise for Toronto since 1986. "We can't afford to sit around and wait while Montreal woos the NFL," Godfrey said.
Rankin Smith, the Atlanta Falcons' owner and a member of the NFL's expansion committee, told The Globe and Mail: "I'd be lying if I told you that the idea of moving into Toronto hasn't already come up in our discussions from time to time. ... There's little doubt that an NFL franchise would be successful in Toronto."
Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen told The Canadian Press, "I would say Toronto is an extremely attractive market."
June of 1995
In a news conference to promote an exhibition game at the SkyDome in Toronto between the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: "We're very interested in this market. We know how much NFL interest there is in Toronto and Canada, generally."
August of 1995
In town for the American Bowl exhibition game between the Bills and Cowboys, Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly said, "There's no doubt that Toronto would be a great city for the NFL."
March of 1998
At league meetings in Orlando, Tagliabue encouraged speculation about expansion into Toronto by short-listing the city, alongside Los Angeles and Houston, as a candidate for the league's 32nd franchise.
January of 2001
On his way to the Super Bowl, Godfrey told The Globe and Mail: "I still think the NFL coming to Toronto is a matter of when, not if. But chasing a sports franchise is a slow process."
February of 2005
In his address at the Super Bowl, Tagliabue said the league is still interested in having a franchise in Toronto: "I said before, and I still feel this way, that I think it could very likely be that the next franchises in the NFL beyond the 32 are outside the United States. Toronto would certainly be a candidate."
Sept. 6, 2006
At a news conference to announce a six-year corporate partnership, Larry Tanenbaum, a minority shareholder of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and Ted Rogers, the chief executive officer of Rogers Communications, indicated they would possibly combine to try to bring the NFL to Toronto. "We hope to pursue [a franchise]vigorously as soon as the NFL gives us the word [on expansion]" Tanenbaum said.
Oct. 11, 2007
The Globe and Mail reported that Toronto Argonauts owners David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski had been in conversation with other CFL governors and league commissioner Mark Cohon on a strategy to buy an NFL franchise in partnership with other owners in the CFL.
Oct. 18, 2007
The Buffalo Bills announced they intend to play an exhibition game and a regular-season game at the Rogers Centre.
Oct. 23, 2007
Bills owner Ralph Wilson presents a plan to NFL owners at a league meeting in Philadelphia to have the Bills play one regular-season and one exhibition game in Toronto, starting in 2008 and lasting through 2012.
ON THE FIELD: NFL TEAMS v. CFL TEAMS
Aug. 12, 1950: The first time an NFL team played in Canada. The Ottawa Roughriders were the host of a mixed-rules exhibition game against the New York Giants, losing 27-6 in front of 13,000 at Lansdowne Park.
Aug. 11, 1951: About 18,000 fans at Lansdowne Park watched the Roughriders and Giants play a rematch exhibition game. The Giants won the game 41-18, which was played by Canadian rules in the first half and American rules in the second half.
Aug. 5, 1959: The first time an NFL team played in Toronto. The Argonauts played host to an exhibition game against the NFL's Chicago Cardinals, losing 55-26 in front of 27,720 fans at the new Canadian National Exhibition Stadium.
Aug. 3, 1960: 23,570 fans at CNE Stadium watched the Argos lose an exhibition game to the Pittsburgh Steelers 43-16.
Aug. 2, 1961: 24,376 spectators at CNE stadium watched the Argos lose an exhibition game to the St. Louis Cardinals 36-7.
Aug. 5, 1961: The Chicago Bears defeated the Montreal Alouettes 34-16 in an exhibition game at Molson Stadium, with 16,293 in attendance.
Aug. 8, 1961: With 12,000 fans in the Civic Stadium, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats beat the AFL's Buffalo Bills 38-21, the only Canadian team to defeat an American team in the seven mixed-rules exhibition games.
IN TORONTO: NFL EXHIBITION GAMES
Aug. 15, 1960: The Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants 16-7 in front of a disappointing crowd of 5,401 at Varsity Stadium, the first NFL game played outside the United States.
The Globe and Mail, Aug. 8, 1960.
Aug. 18, 1988: The Cleveland Browns and New York Jets played an exhibition game at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, where 39,112 fans watched the Jets beat the Browns 11-7.
Aug. 14, 1993: Molson Breweries brought the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots to the SkyDome for an exhibition game won by the Browns 12-9. The attendance was announced as 33,201. The headline in The Globe and Mail the next Monday was Visiting NFL Teams Bore Football Crowd."
Aug. 12, 1995: The Buffalo Bills defeated the Dallas Cowboys 9-7 in front of 55,799 fans at the SkyDome. The game, dubbed the American Bowl, was part of the series of exhibition games held outside the United States to promote the NFL internationally.
Aug. 16, 1997: 53,896 spectators watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Bills 35-3 in an American Bowl contest at SkyDome.