Notebook – November 10, 2006

In a special CFL Playoff Edition of the Notebook we cover all things CFL and playoff related. [Ed. – It is long. You have been warned.]

East and West Championship Finals Should Be Close

Two close championship finals predicted. I would expect the games, both indoors, to be higher scoring than that.

Both finals are highly anticipated, and the CFL is getting good coverage out of both of the West and East games. Looking at the storylines globesports.com has listed for Toronto at Montreal and Saskatchewan at B.C., I am wondering if these guys should not replace the CBC commentators. No more puns Walby and Flutie, please!

CFL: They Like Me, They Really Like Me

The media debunking a myth perpetuated by the Toronto media. This certainly is a turnaround for the CFL. This is not new either; this is something the figures have shown for years. While attendance has suffered, this has been because foreign owners did not connect with the Toronto fans. The current ownership duo has done a good job and the results have been seen in the rising attendance.

Building a pride in team is pride in community aura is much harder to do in Toronto for the CFL with limited opponents and a Canadian only presence compared to MLB or the NHL. Put Toronto in the Grey Cup however, and they all come out to watch.

Stephen Brunt then spins the same old story. No one is making money in the CFL. Despite the Argo claims that they are operating around the break-even point, he does not believe them. Sure, the Argos, Alouettes and other teams this year that claim profitability or breaking even at least could all be an effort to deceive potential buyers of a new franchise. I do not believe this to be the case. If you look at average attendance and average ticket prices teams are generating a low of $6.5 million to a high of $8.5 million in ticket sales. With leagues disbursements of approximately $1 million, plus local sponsorships, playoff games and other revenue (fundraising, concessions) teams have revenue to cover the approximate $4 million in player salaries plus front office salaries, lease costs, travel costs and other expenses. Montreal would be the lowest ticket revenue club, but have stated with their strong corporate sponsorships and a home playoff game, they could see a small profit (even with a ridiculous lease with the Olympic Installations Board). Therefore, unless owners pay themselves extremely large salaries, clubs should be close to break even at worst.

Tom Wright’s Eulogy

Commisioner Wright was available for a media conference call earlier this week to discuss his tenure which ends December 31, 2006. I was glad to see finally a reporter question the salary cap increase to $4.05 million. Although it appears even the smallest market teams have been overspending to old salary cap, this jump in salaries will make it hard to get any new franchises off the ground.

On another note, the Ottawa situation is raised with the statement that Wright showed “… an inability to see trouble brewing in Ottawa until it was too late.” In defence of Wright, this is a very simplistic view of the situation. If we can assume that the owners against Wright took this viewpoint, it is very easily exposed as a flimsy excuse. The league board of governors approved Bernie Glieberman’s purchase into the Ottawa franchise when the ownership group they approved to return the CFL to Ottawa fell apart with capital (no pun intended) issues. These issues were largely in part to Ottawa understanding there was a $2.6 million salary cap, but finding out to be competitive in attracting and keeping players they needed to spend closer to $4 million per year. After Glieberman commissioned an analysis of the franchise at the conclusion of the 2005 season, which recommended the removal of his son Lonnie Glieberman from any involvement with the club, he no longer had any reason to remain effectively the sole owner contributing capital and absorbing large losses with no sign of a turnaround visible in the near future.

There was always a lot of noise coming out of Ottawa with a fractured ownership group and the addition of the Glieberman’s back to the equation. Wright kept the franchise alive for one more year in a bad situation, with no other possible investors willing to join Bill Smith and no opportunity to take a long-term search for an ideal ownership group. The expectation of other owners seems to be Wright should have been inspecting the balance sheet of Ottawa on a daily basis, whereas if Wright asked for financial reports from any other owners they would tell him where to go. So naturally he went through with an international vacation that he likely had planned for sometime, and it happened to coincide with Glieberman’s announcement that he would not fund any more losses in 2006. Wright is criticized for this because “… signs to the contrary” were there prior to his trip. Without knowing exactly what Gliberman would decide and when, Wright was in an impossible position. Even if Wright had revoked the franchise in December or January, prospective owners would not have look favourably on a purchase with little time to close the deal and prepare for the season in order to avoid multi-million dollar losses their first year. It seems the only thing that could have been done to save football in Ottawa for 2006 would have been to start the search during the 2005 season, and since owners do not like to have franchises sold out from under them, they would have had to revoke the franchise and operate it under the CFL until new owner could be found, which could have been into the 2006 season, which the other owners would have not approved. It seems Wright was in a difficult situation. The irony of the situation is that the departure of the Ottawa franchise gave the anti-Wright owners the percentage of dissention they need to vote out the commissioner. To think it all started when the board that brought in the Ottawa franchise in 2001 lied to the new owners about the franchise operating costs. At least it seems the governors have cleaned up this aspect of their franchise search committee.

Roy Shivers

The only person to get an interview with Roy Shivers immediately after the Saskatchewan Roughrider win Sunday was Allan Maki. Saskatchewan media was shut out. Funny how Shivers knew Henry Burris makes mistakes when under pressure, but he still offered him a substantial salary and opportunity to compete for number one before Burris signed with Calgary. I hope that Saskatchewan fans will get over the Burris thing and see it as a blessing. Treat him as another QB, someone you are glad left rather than the last hope who snubbed us. Barrett, other coaches and players are still in regular contact with Shivers, so despite thoughts that Barrett has looked more independent since Shivers left, that is probably an illusion. Shivers seems adamant about Barrett walking away from the ‘Riders after the season (and hopefully a Grey Cup victory) so we can probably expect Barrett to obey. I do not understand what being bonded this much to Shivers buys Barrett and Richie Hall. The media criticism did not necessarily reflect the fan criticism, but managing the media is something you must do anywhere and especially in Saskatchewan. Circling the wagons with an “us vs. them” attitude only brings the media on stronger, especially when you form a pact for succession in an open, community owned organization.

Fans Question CFL

In an interesting twist on normal reporting, globesports.com‘s David Naylor answered questions online today about the CFL. Unprepared answers from reporters tend to reveal details and opinions that do not come out in articles covering a story or development. A few questions on interesting subjects are worth mentioning.

First of interest was Naylor’s comments on the commissioner search. He puts forward a very good evaluation of the CFL‘s position regarding their next commissioner. I would expect that the CFL board will restructure the commissioners purpose and power before hiring someone to that position to avoid the issue they see with commissioners wagging the dog when the owners feel the commissioner is just a tail. A figurehead position is all they want, someone to hand out the awards, be in front of the camera and wine and dine the sponsors, but leave all the business decisions to the board. This will leave the CFL with the second most lame duck commissioner, right behind the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Next, a fan brings up the quality of the product and puts the blame directly on the short pre-season since the expansion of the regular season from 16 games to 18 games. As a fan of the 1980’s CFL, this question writer should know that the CFL switched to the longer schedule in 1986. Some of the best, most competitive and exciting years of Canadian Football occurred after the switch from 1987 until 1993. There is no doubt that there are benefits to returning to the old arrangement, however there are more reasons why 4 by 16 game pre-season/regular season split cannot happen.

First, this creates a pre-season that is one quarter the length of the regular season. This is unbalanced compared to any other league. The equivalent would be a 40 game Grapefruit league schedule or 20 game NHL pre-season schedule. Second, as noted in the question, pre-season games are poor draws. In the CFL the lack of demand for tickets makes it very hard to draw fans to exhibition contests. This ultimately results in tickets being paid for by season ticket holders, but the walk-up crowd attending on complimentary tickets. Changing the pre-season to two home dates, resulting in twenty percent of their season ticket price being for meaningless games would affect the value of the tickets.

As usual, there is a solution to the problem between the two extremes. It is possible to add a third exhibition contest to improve the preparation before the season. An agreement with the Players Association to add a third pre-season game for players in their third year or less with the league could provide the game action to evaluate young players, freeing up more playing time for veterans in the pre-season to work on their timing. These games could be controlled scrimmages at alternate locations to get the CFL out into the communities and profits could be split between the clubs and the Players Association. Additional time in the pre-season by the starters, especially quarterbacks, will show fruit early in the season.

In a later question an old-timer brings up the argument that the quality of the CFL has declined simply because the league does not compare salary wise to the NFL. As such he eschews the CFL for the NFL because the quality is better. This is an age-old argument and it is a fallacy. The fact is one cannot compare the “quality” of the CFL with the “quality” of the NFL. They are different games, much more so in the last 25 years as the CFL game has evolved from a style that more resembled the NFL’s prior to 1980. The differences in the game require much different athletes and mind sets. The NFL’s appeal comes from either preferring that style of game or the spectacle that comes along with it.

Finally Naylor responds to a question on the Ottawa situation with some skepticism about the CFL returning to Ottawa. I have to agree with his evaluation on the CFL‘s intent to return to Ottawa requiring a big franchise fee. I have said before in these pages that this is no way to conduct business when your policies largely cause the demise of the previous franchise that you then pad your pockets with money from the next sucker to buy a franchise. I also agree that Palmer does not seem like the type who would gladly pay this fee just to join the club. If anything, he may pay an annual fee over a long period, but no large $3.5 million entry fee to saddle his group with debt out of the gate when they will need operating capital to get through the first three to five years. Here is hoping that the CFL is reasonable and flexible in their negotiations, as the lineup of potential ownership groups may disappear and Ottawa may never return.

CFL Enters Final Franchise Negotiations

Tom Wright announced this week that negotiations to return a franchise to Ottawa have entered the next phase. Interestingly Wright stated “I’m not going to comment on who or how many (groups)…” leaving speculation that there still may be a mystery group in the running for the franchise. Based on previous reports on the bidders, there should only be one group left, led by former Ottawa Rough Rider Bill Palmer, after the Golden Gate Capital group dropped out and the Frank D’Angelo led group was dismissed.

If Wright’s attitude and comments do not prove he is the perfect commissioner, then I do not know what else he could do. His comments give me hope that the CFL will not shoot itself in the foot by demanding a ridiculous price for the franchise. The danger may not be in the deal Wright and franchise search committee chair Ted Hellard negotiate, but in the board of governors voting the deal down because they do not get the franchise fee they want.

Ricky Williams

Ricky Williams will return to Miami according to his agent. There is no doubt in my mind that Ricky is sincere when he says his life and priorities are changed and that he does not use marijuana anymore. Yet, the belief across the border is that he will likely fail another drug test once he returns to the NFL. Marshall Faulk, as a Sportsnet NFL analyst, made a good point about Williams’ commodity value upon his return when he has had little playing time the last three years but concluded with stating that he needs to get his personal life straightened out. It is as if time is standing still for them, they cannot seem to understand his life is straight and has been for some time. The book on Ricky is that he is not committed to football, he just happens to be good at it so he does it. I do not think that is the case. If he really did not like football, would he talk about returning to the CFL to play any position he wanted? His mind is just different from others and he cannot focus on just one thing, he has many interests, and the CFL shorter days give him the time to do other things.

CFL Notes

Although the Bombers are stating that Grey Cup ticket sales will not be hurt by Winnipeg’s early exit from the playoffs, I am not so sure. They are down to 3,000 tickets left which they expect to go quickly once the finalists are decided, but I wonder how many tickets are available in the papers and eBay? Cold weather and no local presence may convince some to stay home, giving the stadium a partially filled look, which is bad no matter whether it was a sell-out or not.

Grey Cup rings are being sold left and right. Allan Maki gets to the bottom of the story.

Elliotte Friedman has praise for Kenton Keith for a season-turning performance in Sunday’s West Semi-Final. Unlike what Shiver’s thinks, I know Keith is a great back, but he has been inconsistent his whole tenure. For the ‘Riders to get over that hump and finish first or second, they need Keith to be consistent all year. It sounds like Keith has figured out Regina though, and if he wants to go out, he will do it in another city where he will not be a target.

John Avery gets his comedy break on a new show. I saw his act on a sports feature last year and it was mostly material on how poor the CFL and CFL players are.

Tom Wright confirms blocking rules will be reviewed. Oh, thank you, thank you, and thank you.

Maurice Lloyd is the newest part of ‘Rider big play defence. If Roy Shivers could have found quarterbacks they way he finds defensive players, the ‘Riders would be a CFL dynasty right now.

Jackie Parker’s passing was marked by memorial service at Commonwealth Stadium. I only knew him as a coach and from old black-and-white snippets, but there was no doubt he was a huge figure in Canadian sports history.

Calgary’s Buratto fired. I am not sure if I understand this. At least Tom Higgins dodged the bullet this time after a loss to the ‘Riders.

Why does the CFL always have to take it on the chin before the blame is directed where it needs to go? CBC first published under the title “Foster children being forced out of hotels for Grey Cup“, which was later updated to better reflect the blame on the government, not the hotels or Grey Cup, with “Minister promises beds for foster children displaced by Grey Cup”.

Montreal faces salary cap decisions. If cap issues cause a lot of player movement on all teams, all bets are off next year.

A Toronto-Saskatchewan Grey Cup seems appropriate. The CFL usually gets the best thing for it when it needs it the most.

One Response to “Notebook – November 10, 2006”

  1. jim Says:

    re: Ricky Williams

    “His mind is just different from others and he cannot focus on just one thing”

    hmmm… so it’s not just me. Was beginning to think I had ADD.

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