Canadian Football Looks For Daylight

Bruce McNall, the Los Angeles coin dealer who's paying rookie Raghib "Rocket" Ismail a record $18 million over four years to play in the Canadian Football League, couldn't have scripted it any better. On Nov. 17, before a near-capacity Toronto SkyDome crowd of 50,380, the Rocket gathered in a punt, then darted and danced his way 75 yards downfield for a touchdown. The Rocket's performance helped propel McNall's Toronto Argonauts to a 42-3 blowout of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and a berth in the Grey Cup -- the CFL's Super Bowl -- on Nov. 24.

In his first year in Canada, the Rocket has done more than help the Argos to a 14-5 record. Just as McNall had hoped when he lured the former Notre Dame star up north, Ismail has fired interest in the CFL. Average attendance at Argo home games jumped some 15,000, to 36,000, this season. And the CFL's long-anemic TV ratings are up by as much as 40%.

RESCUE MISSIONS. Even with the Rocket, though, the CFL remains one of the shakiest pro leagues in North America. "Every team is losing money this year," moans Murray Pezim, the flamboyant Vancouver mining executive who owns the British Columbia Lions. Pezim expects to lose more than $1 million this year, even though Lions' quarterback Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, has boosted home attendance by 10,000 a game. Two of the eight CFL teams -- Calgary and Ottawa -- were just rescued from insolvency by new owners.

To get on firmer ground, CFL owners are now considering the most radical gamble in their history: expanding into the U. S. A committee headed by Canadian comedian John Candy, an Argo co-owner, is studying the question, and some sort of U. S. foray seems likely by the 1993 season. Commissioner J. Donald Crump says Portland, Ore., Detroit, Florida, and even Fargo, N. D., are among the sites under consideration.

The U. S. presents an almost irresistible lure. Since the Montreal Alouettes folded in 1987, the CFL has been locked into the tiny, English-speaking Canadian market. "We're running a whole league for 17 million people," says Crump, the fourth CFL commish in 10 years.

Small markets don't make for fat revenues. This year the CFL sold its TV rights to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. for a mere $1 million and netted several million more from ad sales. Much of that money went to keep the Ottawa Rough Riders afloat. But even in a good year, CFL teams count on no more than $1 million or so from TV. In contrast, each National Football League team will get $28 million in TV loot this year. That's roughly equal to the CFL's total revenue.

Those numbers are at the heart of the league's dilemma. While the CFL needs marquee players to generate fan interest, it can't compete with NFL salaries. The average CFL player earns a little more than $50,000, about one-eighth the NFL average. And while McNall outbid the NFL for the Rocket, few believe that he can afford to keep the star in Canada beyond his four-year contract, if that long. Indeed, Candy hinted in a recent newspaper interview that Ismail may soon jump to the Los Angeles Raiders, who own his NFL signing rights.

Ismail would certainly be more visible in the U. S. if he went with the Raiders. His presence in Toronto hasn't won him many stateside viewers, who can watch the Rocket only on the Prime Network, a cable sports outfit, and usually only on tape delay. Prime admits it wasn't the CFL's first choice. "By the time the league got to us, a lot of other networks had said no," admits Tony Acone, assistant to the chairman of Prime Ticket, Prime Network's parent.

'REAL BORING.' The minimal TV exposure is a source of great frustration to CFL owners, who think their brand of football has great fan appeal. The CFL game, which features 3 downs, 12 men on a side, and a wider and longer field, is designed for passing and scoring. By comparison, "the NFL is real boring," says Phil Kershaw, president of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The CFL is also a heck of a lot cheaper. "Who wants to buy an NFL team for $100 million or more when you can have a CFL team for $10 million or less?" asks Larry Ryckman, the Calgary businessman who in October bought his city's Stampeders team. "Besides, the upside potential is enormous."

Ryckman is an optimist, but then, CFL owners have to be. Their current season runs from July through November, meaning the league goes head-to-head against baseball and college football, not to mention the NFL. And if the league's U. S. reception so far is any indication of the future, expansion could lead it into serious trouble. That's why some CFL supporters argue that the league's best option is to forget the U. S. and learn to live within its smaller budget up north. That's not what McNall had in mind when he spent big bucks to bring the Rocket to Canada, but it may be the CFL's best bet for long-term survival.

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