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Is The Nfl Hearing Footsteps?


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IS THE NFL HEARING FOOTSTEPS?

If you found yourself nodding into the onion dip during the second half of Super Bowl XXZzzzz, take heart: Relief from the NFL blahs may be on the way.

On the heels of what was roundly criticized as a snooze of a pro football season in the U.S., the Canadian Football League is mounting the biggest expansion blitz in its 102-year history. Last summer, the Sacramento Gold Miners became the league's first-ever U.S. club. Las Vegas has already been awarded a franchise for the coming season, which kicks off in July. And by mid-February, the league hopes to add two more U.S. teams. Right now, Baltimore seems a shoo-in, while negotiations are continuing with prospective owners in Orlando and Shreveport, La.

HIGH STAKES. By 1997, CFL Commissioner Larry W. Smith hopes to have "9 or 10 U.S. teams." That would set the stage for a championship game that would pit the best U.S. team against the top Canadian squad. By then, the CFL will almost certainly have a new name, perhaps the North American Football League.

"It's a high-stakes gamble," scoffs Michael Megna, a Milwaukee-based sports appraiser and analyst. High-rollers with deeper pockets than the CFL's owners have already proven how tough it is to take on the National Football League on its home field: Consider the aborted United States Football League. It hung up its cleats in 1985 after three expensive years. But the CFL contends it has come up with a playbook that just might enable it to prosper in the NFL's shadow.

"This is not a copycat league," Smith insists. For one thing, the Canadian game is a breed apart. Teams field 12 men and have just three downs to move the ball 10 yards. The field itself is longer (110 yards) and wider, making it harder for the defense to shut down an offensive attack. And with 20 seconds between plays, vs. 40 in the NFL, there's faster action and more scoring. The game favors players more nimble than the 300-pound gladiators who cause so much gridlock in the NFL. The CFL's biggest current star, former Boston College (and New England Patriots) quarterback Doug Flutie, passed for a record 6,619 yards in the 1991 season, more than Dan Marino's all-time NFL record of 5,084. Says James Curry, a CBC-TV football announcer: "The CFL is built for fans who like to see points put up on the scoreboard."

Unlike the USFL, which had franchises in a number of solid NFL towns, such as New York and Pittsburgh, the CFL is expanding into midsize markets that have little hope of ever snaring an NFL team. Sacramento and Las Vegas fit that description. So does frustrated Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt Schmoke has pledged to give the CFL a lease on the vacant, 56,000-seat Memorial Stadium if a long-shot drive to attract an existing NFL club doesn't score by Feb. 15. "Baltimore is poised to welcome the CFL with open arms," says the mayor's spokesman. In fact, some 20,000 Baltimoreans have already reserved CFL season tickets.

The bold expansion plans are attracting plenty of interest from wannabe owners. Why? A CFL franchise costs $3 million, compared with "an average of $125 million to $140 million for an NFL club," says Megna. And should the CFL catch fire, "a few years down the road these franchises will be worth 10 times what they are today," predicts Fred Anderson, owner of the Gold Miners.

Still, relatively deep pockets may be needed. "I took a bath in my first year," admits Anderson, who has lost several million dollars so far. He's not alone. Of the CFL's 9 teams, 7 lost money in 1993.

CLOSED POSSE. To stem the bleeding, the league has imposed a total player salary cap of just $2 million per team. While clubs are allowed an exemption to pay one star up to $750,000, most players make about $50,000 a year, less than 10% of what the average NFL player gets. Yet despite the low pay, football players are banging on the CFL's door like it's a practice dummy. The Las Vegas Posse has already stopped taking names and numbers of gridiron hopefuls.

Keeping salaries down gives the expansion drive a chance to succeed with just a modest increase in revenues. CFL officials expect that the coming cross-border rivalry will rekindle fan interest in Canada. Meanwhile, the CFL has just signed a new U.S. cable-TV contract with ESPN Inc., which plans to broadcast a Friday night CFL game-of-the-week on its new ESPN-2 network.

Nobody's predicting overnight success. "It will take three to five years," for the CFL to prove itself in the U.S. market, says Larry Ryckman, president of the Calgary Stampeders and head of the league's expansion committee. But who knows? The beer-ad-bloated, drawn-out, thrill-anemic trench warfare of the "Not-so-Fun-League" could lead a slew of fans to sample the scrappier Canadian game. At worst, the CFL might make the hulking NFL get off its butt pads.

SOUTHWARD, HO!

THE CFL'S FIRST

U.S. FRANCHISES

1. Sacramento

2. Las Vegas

KICKING OFF IN '94?

1. Orlando

2. Baltimore

3. Shreveport, La.

POSSIBLE POST-1994

EXPANSION CITIES

1. San Antonio

2. Memphis

3. Nashville

4. Portland, Ore.

5. Oakland, Calif.

6. Worcester, Mass. (or Boston area)

7. Montreal

DATA: CANADIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE LTD., BWWilliam C. Symonds in Toronto


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