Between the lies and rumours
There’s a world of mystery
Lies and Rumours — Alannah Myles
Note: To gain a full understanding of the issues surrounding this topic, one must read as much as one can on what has been written about it. I encourage everyone to read as many of the stories linked to in this post for the greatest spectrum of coverage on this subject.
After rumours surfaced around CFL owners pursuing an NFL franchise on their own, I wrote a post asking questions that this development raised as well as a facetious take on the hype it caused. Soon after more stories broke around the Buffalo Bills scheduling to play games in Toronto, which I linked to and said I would address in my verbose fashion at a later date. Now that the plan has been officially announced by the Bills and the commentary is mostly done I provide this summary of the stories and my sober analysis of what this means for Toronto businesspersons who want to acquire an NFL franchise and for the CFL.
To summarize the (mainly) facts known to date:
- The NFL’s Buffalo Bills introduced a plan for approval by the NFL, the state and county to play games outside Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. The plan was presented to the NFL in October 23 meetings in Philadelphia where the details revealed a regular season game at Rogers Centre in Toronto for five years starting in 2008 plus exhibition games in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
- The state approved the proposal by the Bills prior to the meeting and is expected to receive NFL and county approval by the end of the year. The move is seen by NFL owners as necessary for the Bills’ survival, not as a harbinger of a permanent move of the franchise to Toronto.
- While not determined, there seems to be a will to avoid a conflict with the CFL season by playing the regular season game in December.
- Appearances by Bills’ players in Toronto relate to their goal to expand their territory to the southern Ontario market, which is meant to better position the team to stay in Buffalo long-term, even after Ralph Wilson’s death.
- Edmonton and Vancouver have been lobbying the NFL for a regular season game as part of the NFL’s international plan, while Toronto has been lobbying to delay or block such a game.
Other notes and commentary of interest:
- Contrary to reports, the Jacksonville Jaguars are not close to being for sale or being relocated.
- Briefly noted from the NFL meetings were updates on potential new stadiums in Minneapolis, San Francisco and San Diego.
- A Toronto reporter tries to find perspective on the NFL’s potential in Canada in the heart of CFL country — Saskatchewan, but fills it with stereotypes instead.
- Doug Flutie questions the viability of an NFL franchise in Toronto, but also believes that an NFL franchise may hurt the Toronto Argonauts, forcing it out before the NFL franchise has a chance to fail.
- Reading the comments on the TSN and globesports.com articles linked in this post, you find a strong majority either discounting any possibility of the NFL surviving in Toronto or claiming their indifference to such a move. While not a scientific poll, it is interesting as ten years ago I remember such online conversations being a 50-50 split at best, with CFL supporters often being in the minority.
Unravelling the Mystery
While there have been media responses to the reaction stating the CFL should quit fearing the NFL and embrace it instead, there has been little analysis of how these events makes the city of Toronto any closer to landing an NFL franchise. A Globe and Mail’s David Naylor and Stephen Brunt two-page article tries to examine the “inevitable” arrival of the NFL in Canada, but falls short in its own bias. Occam’s razor states that when presented with multiple theories, the one that introduces the fewest assumptions should be selected. Contrary to this, the media has created a certain future how the NFL will arrive in Canada, ignoring any comments to the contrary, facts, hurdles and assumptions.
Naylor/Brunt start with some unverifiable speculation from a “secret” CFL governors meeting.
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.
We know from anonymous governor verification that there was preliminary brainstorming talk from the Toronto Argonaut owners that one way they could control the NFL’s entry into Canada would be to be become a bidder themselves. This discussion never went much farther than this, apparently, to get into the details of the structure of such an ownership group and whether they could form a group with enough capital. The media were quick to report this internal speculation, but failed to follow up and investigate the makeup and means of a Cynamon/Sokolowski ownership group and were critical of CFL governors for dismissing the plan as “preliminary”.
Now Naylor/Brunt make a statement regarding a suggestion of a spring-summer season for the CFL, with a Grey Cup on Labour Day weekend. No examination of such a statement is made. Since there is no attribution to the suggestion, it is much more likely a suggestion of the reporters themselves. Examination of the statement reveals that to hold the Grey Cup Labour Day weekend, the season is being pushed ahead three months, requiring it to start in early April and training camps and the preseason to take place in March. Obviously, this is not possible due to weather concerns, especially in Western Canada, and would likely do more to harm the CFL than an NFL franchise in Toronto as it affects all clubs. If it was spoken in a CFL governors meeting, it was in a “put all options on the table” brainstorming session. I am not saying it will not be pursued by the governors, but upon examination the plan would have to be tweaked to move the season up one month at most. Reporting such a statement as a final solution under consideration is alarmist.
Later, Naylor/Brunt speculate:
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 …
They refer to Darryl Katz as a potential third partner for the ownership group, but provide no source, anonymous or otherwise, that this is possibly the case. Katz could not be reached for comment and without an even anonymous source close to Rogers, Tanenbaum, Paul Godfrey, Katz or another individual close to their business interests this seems more like unsubstantiated rumour, which in many cases is baseless.
Naylor/Brunt go on to whitewash the NFL franchise relocation situation.
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.
There has been much said about New Orleans since their relocation since hurricane Katrina (and even before) and subsequent return. While it certainly is true that the Saints may move at some point, there is no reason to believe that it will be soon and certainly not to Toronto. How many years must they remain in New Orleans for the NFL to work on getting a new stadium before the NFL may allow them to move without appearing heartless? Five? When that does happen, there is no reason to believe owner Tom Benson would sell the team (and Toronto interests would be successful in acquiring it). He has stated he plans to hand down the team to his granddaughter. A more plausible possibility is Benson would keep the team, and move it to San Antonio, where he resides, and has had discussions to move the team already.
Jacksonville’s owner, as linked above, appears to committed to making his location work in the long haul. The fact is, as an NFL franchise, operating at a break even or slightly in the red level is easy to take for these owners considering their wealth and the appreciation of their franchises. This is not like NHL franchises which bleed money in small, southern US markets. The proposal for a new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis is just reaching funding approval stage with the state legislature and could take two or more years before the Vikings have the opportunity to sell or move should the stadium plan be refused funding.
As for the Buffalo Bills, owner Ralph Wilson has said it will be hard for his team to remain in Buffalo since his estate will be selling the team upon his death, and therefore it will go to the highest bidder. Principals paying $1 billion or more for a team will not want to remain in Buffalo, where the return on the capital investment in the team will not be maximized. Wilson is trying, however, to make the situation to keep the team in Buffalo for local or other buyers more attractive. Expanding his market region to sell out corporate sponsorships, suites, tickets and increase other revenues streams will make the team more likely to stay in Buffalo. He is not waiting to die, leaving a Bills franchise in shambles, ready for buyers to snap up to relocate and destroy the over 40 years of football history he built in Buffalo. Nor is he resigned to the franchise moving to Buffalo North, Toronto, within reach of Buffalo fans and his announced plans should not be seen as laying the groundwork to do so.
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.
Putting a positive spin on such a move, that it can still be Buffalo’s team, even if they play in Toronto, whether for a few games or permanently may ease the guilt of Toronto sports reporters, but it will not sit well with Buffalonians. The fact is, outside of these eight games over the next five years, the Bills will not be playing in Toronto until after 2012 because any owner will have to abide by the current lease, lest they want to get into a drawn out legal battle. And that is long enough away that I will not be lining up for tickets.
In another story, Brunt gives credit to Toronto CFL franchise owners Sokolowski and Cynamon for rescuing the franchise and operating it as a philanthropic work.
They can’t be making money – though, to be fair, they’ll recoup a whole lot on the Grey Cup this year – but are happy to subsidize the franchise, and by extension the league, to enjoy a rather expensive hobby because they’re genuinely passionate about the game.
I think this is better read as he cannot see how they are making money, just like when I see Dell selling personal computers for $500 I cannot see how they are making money because in 1992 computers cost thousands of dollars. I do not know what the Argonauts profit sheet looked like the past few years, but there is no doubt in my mind that both owners have a plan to reach profitability. They may not expect to reach the return on investment of 20% plus per year that venture capitalists expect, or even a respectable 15% that shareholders require, but they do want to get to a black situation and may do so this year, outside of any Grey Cup revenue. Considering the corporate and fan growth locally and the increased league revenues, there can be no question they are closer than when they bought the team. As private owners, though, their profit situation will remain undisclosed. Many past owners have been pointed to as (or ridiculed for) losing money on CFL franchises. However, none have become paupers for owning a team. Instead, they have used their losses as tax write-offs, paid themselves, their children, spouses, and friends handsome salaries and fulfilled their dreams owning a sports franchise and being part of a team.
Later, he summarizes the ideas of other CFL member clubs to combat an NFL presence in Toronto, even if it is on a limited basis.
That maybe the NFL board will stop the Bills’ plan from coming to fruition (as if). Maybe the federal government will intervene. (This government? In this world?) Maybe fans ought to boycott Rogers products in protest (that would be Rogers, corporate sponsors of the CFL). Maybe the Argos could simply pack up and move to London, Ont., or to a non-existent stadium in suburban Mississauga.
Heck, maybe they could just disappear entirely, since the CFL doesn’t need a Toronto team to survive in any case.
What CFL outposts does Brunt pull these comments from? In all I have read surrounding these events, and I have read everything that has come across my news reader feeds, the only comments that came out of the mouth of a CFL individual is the boycott statement from Lions owner David Braley and the Mississauga comment from Rick LeLacheur. The plan not being approved by the NFL? Stated by the media with no attribution (it is a simple possibility). The federal government will pass legislation? Reported by Brunt himself in his Issues at Stake summary, talked about on sports radio, but never quoted out of a CFL governors mouth. Move the Argos to Mississauga? Stated by Edmonton Eskimos president and CEO Rick LeLacheur in an unprepared statement when surrounded by reporters and asked about the breaking story of Bills games coming to Toronto, it can hardly be viewed as an official statement of the league’s stance or plans. It is not ridiculous for the CFL to believe they could have a CFL sized stadium built in a London or Mississauga if other businesspersons believe they can build a $1 billion NFL stadium in Toronto with no public money. At this stage all options are on the table, just like Toronto interests leave all options on the table for obtaining an NFL franchise. As for the CFL not needing a Toronto franchise to survive, it may be harsh to state, but the remainder of the CFL will not immediately collapse if a Toronto franchise finds it impossible to survive at Rogers Centre, BMO field, in Mississauga or anywhere else, and that is important for CFL supporters across the nation to know.
The fact is this story broke fast and the CFL and the member clubs were unprepared. Their comments to the media were not heads-in-the sand dismissing the issue, but statements to their fans that they plan on being in Edmonton, B.C. and elsewhere in the country. Perhaps there should have been no comments except an official statement from the league office, however, that would appear much more fearful of the developments. As an emotional issue, it is expected that long time CFL supporters, with years of sweat, blood and money in the league like David Braley, will lash out at who appears to be a catalyst in the situation, Rogers Media, despite they being a league sponsor. The same way Ralph Wilson curtly barked to reporters “Worried about what?” when the suggestion CFL owners were concerned by his plan was made, an emotional response shows their dedication and concern to the Canadian brand of football as Wilson’s shows his dedication to his club.
The End, or Just the Beginning?
Is the news in the fall of 2007 the end of 30 years of waiting for the NFL to come to Canada and finish off the CFL for good, or the beginning of something else? I believe the latest news bodes well for the CFL, and unlike the media, I do not believe every announcement with “Toronto” and “NFL” in them makes them one step closer to acquiring an NFL franchise.
- The Buffalo Bills’ plan for games in Toronto actually works in Toronto’s favour in keeping an NFL franchise from relocating to Toronto. Seen by the media as a change in the NFL policy to avoid conflict with the Grey Cup in Toronto this year, it actually, in my eyes, caught the NFL office off-guard as well. This was a proposal from the Bills owner, outside of the control of the NFL, which is why there was no prior notification to the CFL. Roger Goodell may have different internationalization ideas than his predecessor Paul Tagliabue, but it is unlikely he is willing to torpedo the Canadian Football League. Any venture of the NFL into Canada must be done properly as to not alienate the Canadian public, which has a growing disapproval of American dominance, especially in the areas of culture.
- If Wilson lives until 2012 it is likely another lease agreement, perhaps for another 10 years, will be signed for Ralph Wilson Stadium, keeping the team in Buffalo for that period, hamstring potential buyers. Five to 15 years from now it is also hard to predict the economic situation and whether the Bills will be attractive to local buyers, for you can never underestimate what governments will do to prevent teams from leaving.
- The NFL’s statement regarding the Bills plans places southern Ontario in the Bills market area. This eliminates Toronto interests from acquiring another franchise and moving it to Toronto, part of the Bills territory. I think that effectively eliminates the talk of Jacksonville, New Orleans or Minnesota relocating to southern Ontario or Toronto acquiring an expansion team.
- These plans for eight games over five years for the Bills at Rogers Centre eliminates the possibility of Toronto getting one of the other international NFL games over the next five years. If the NFL does award games to Canada, they are more likely to go to Edmonton or Vancouver, who have already been quietly bidding on the prospect, or even Montreal, who may also decide to bid for a game at Olympic Stadium. These centres see a single NFL game as another revenue source, a one time experience for their fans to sell out the stadium, but not hurt their CFL attendance. This is similar to clubs hosting Grey Cups, concerts and other promotions as auxiliary sources of income.
- The state of the Toronto Argonauts has not been this strong in years. An assumption is made that all of their fans would immediately flock to an NFL ticket. This cannot be made. First, a vast majority of their patrons are CFL fans, and go to the game because they like the CFL‘s style of play. Secondly, the economics of them switching to NFL tickets, even dropping Argo season tickets for single Bills game tickets in the next few years, may be out of their possibility. Hamilton’s state is much the same. While the NFL’s appearance in Canada’s affect on attendance may be negligible at first, the concern will be long term, as the visibility factor becomes the issue.
- Of greater concern to CFL franchises in southern Ontario, though more for the Argos, is corporate support. This comes in advertising and sponsorship, and affecting the CFL as a whole, television sponsorship. If these items shrink due to money heading to an NFL franchise, eventually visibility will suffer, in the local media and television, which will lead to declining attendance. As long as television numbers continue to be strong there is no reason to believe the television contract would not be worthy to broadcasters and sponsors. This is the major issue facing the CFL, even being a gate driven league. If sponsorship and television can continue to grow, these CFL franchises can survive and coexist with the NFL.
- Listening to powerful voices in the NFL owners circle like Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen it seems apparent that there will be a strong voice in NFL circles for supporting the CFL, and forming a partnership with the CFL so they can reap the benefits of NFL activity in Canada.
- If these reports do not scare off potential investors in a ninth franchise for Ottawa, the CFL will be in a strong position to continue its growth in attendance and television ratings, with stadium expansion scheduled for Montreal, a new stadium and private ownership in Winnipeg and the potential revitalization of the stadium and franchise in Ottawa.
- I have stated that I do not believe Toronto will support an NFL team in the long term. This feeling comes from observing history. The Toronto Blue Jays were a hot ticket, from their expansion, to their first years of contention, to their World Series Championships. Since, attendance has dropped off, and though there have been recent gains with the promise of a team challenging for a pennant, the owners are finding how hard it is to make that challenge, even with increases to team salaries to buy and keep free agents. The high dollar and media ownership has helped keep team losses covered by ancillary benefits. The owners and executives have now even lost interest, and now lust for an NFL team. Governments change, economies change and baby boomers die. When they do, will private owners be ready to be in Buffalo’s position with a shrunken corporate and media market and fans unable to afford $500 tickets? What becomes of the $1 billion stadium then? In Montreal, the arrival of Olympic Stadium in 1976 and sold out crowds led to the belief that once the ownership mismanaged the team and it folded, the NFL would come to town. Never materializing, Quebec is now again a CFL support hotbed, and the NFL is rarely mentioned, while the Big O hosts a couple games a year.
The process will continue to play out, over years and not months, to the chagrin of the media defined Torontonian dying to spend $30,000 on a seat license and $500 per game ticket. As long as CFL fans do not abandon their league in despair or anticipation of what the media report as the end of the league, then the CFL will be around
for the NFL’s arrival and after.