"Gotta Get Back"

I went to bed at 3 am last night. I decided at 1 am that it was time to learn all there is to know about Tibet. I don’t know why I finally find motivation to do things after midnight. It must be some weird genetic thing I got from my Grandma Lehmann. She’s a notorious night owl.

But to the task at hand…

Here we go again.

The CFL has decided it wants to ‘get back’ to Ottawa (insert sarcastic ‘yippee’ here).

Count me as one not-so-happy camper. Remember the last attempt at CFL football in Ottawa? The Renegades? The Renegades that folded a mere four years after their establishment. The Ottawa Rough Riders (note the spelling!) of old were a storied franchise. They had the likes of Tony Gabriel, Russ Jackson. They’ve won more Grey Cups than our Riders, even though their last one was in 1976 – and they beat the Riders to win it.

Expansion in the CFL is usually the nightmare. The only successful expansion in the past 20 years has been the revitalization of the Alouettes brand. There was the horrendous American experiment in the early 1990s by former commish Larry Smith (who now, oddly, is the president of the Alouettes; weird) that almost sunk the entire league. I’ve never completely forgiven the man for that ridiculous venture. Remember the Sacremento Gold Miners? The Birmingham Barracudas? The Memphis Mad Dogs? The Shreveport Pirates? And my favourite – the Las Vegas Posse.

The Posse were my favourite because of their anthem singer. The man f*cked up the Canadian anthem EVERY SINGLE TIME. I began to wait for Posse games just so I could hear that godawful singer. It was an absolute embarassment, especially to passionate CFL fans, who never wanted expansion in the first place. But the worst part of American expansion? The fact that the first time Regina ever hosted the Grey Cup, 1995, the Baltimore Stallions won. The only American team to ever hoist the CFL’s ultimate prize. I was there. Maybe that’s why I’m so bitter about it…

Nothing good came out of expansion, except for the development of Anthony Calvillo into a bona fide number one quarterback. But that has only benefitted the Alouettes. The CFL took a good decade to recover from the mess Smith and Company created with their American experiment.

And then came the Renegades in 2002. Personally, I didn’t think the league was strong enough yet to start fiddling with new franchises. The Renegades weren’t horrible, but they weren’t very good either. The problem was the ownership, unable to front the money required. The team ended up reverting to the awful Gliebermans, who proceeded to dig the Renegades’ financial hole even bigger. They folded before the 2006 season.

At that time things weren’t good in Toronto or Hamilton, either; both were in need of new ownership. Luckily a miracle happened. The CFL owners actually thought about whom they were hiring as commissioner and appointed Tom Wright. Wright found Bob Young to take over Hamilton, and David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski bought the Argos. The Argos, especially since the move of ‘Pinball’ Clemons into the head coaching position, have enjoyed an expanded fanbase. Hamilton continues to struggle, but Young refuses to give up, putting money into stadium upgrades and ponying up the money to sign 2005 MOP Casey Printers. Expect them to be better this year.

So here we are. 2008. And the CFL decides it’s time to go back to Ottawa.

But there IS reason to hope this endeavour will not end as catastrophically as the last.

First, the franchise is CONDITIONAL, meaning, it’s not for sure. The owners have to pay the CFL $7 million up front expansion fee. They must secure a lease for Frank Clair Stadium and upgrade it. All of these things must be done before the team even begins to assemble itself.

Second, the ownership involved has deep pockets.

Third, Jeff Hunt is involved. Hunt owns the Ottawa ’67s and has become a well-known sports executive, turning around the ’67s and creating one of the top junior hockey franchises in the country. But hockey is far different from football.

Fourth, there is a salary cap. This will help cap spending and force the franchise to development talent in order to be successful, rather than spend itself into oblivion.

Fifth, the timeline. None of this is going to happen for a good two years, maybe more. This gives the CFL time to make sure everything is ready, from schedule changes to marketing. The expansion franchise will be able to market itself and develop a season ticket base.

What don’t I like?

1. Nine teams does not a league make. It’s a pain in the ass scheduling wise.

2. The Bombers will be forced to move West again. The East is usually the weaker of the two divisions, and the playoff crossover rule will probably be used for the first couple of seasons.

3. The fact that Commissioner Mark Cohon is pursuing expansion so soon after the Renegades’ debacle. If I was Commissioner, I would work on marketing the CFL to its current franchises. The game continues to lack a real marketing presence. The move of broadcasting rights to TSN should help. And I’d be working with Hamilton to reenergize that franchise; its fanbase is faltering. The league’s eight franchises need to be strong before expansion is an option.

4. With the NFL coming to Toronto for five games a year from now on, I have to wonder what is the CFL’s plan to deal with it. It could jeopardize all of the hard work that has gone into revitalizing the Argos. The league should be working on creating a specific Canadian brand of football in order to weather the coming NFL storm. Expansion at this time isn’t a good idea with the NFL on the horizon.
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