CFL must focus on Argos, Lions, not expansion

The CFL must focus on its current franchises as opposed to expansion. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Amid all the optimistic conjecture about where the Canadian Football League may look for its next expansion franchise, the reality is that the futures of the B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts are the more salient issues.

With Senator David Braley, who owns the Lions and Argos, publicly indicating he is looking to divest one or both of his franchises within the next three years, the CFL is moving into a critical time period. Braley’s desire to gracefully exit the CFL by the time he is 75 in three years is hardly the earth-shaking news it became last week. It’s been known for some time to anyone with a radar for CFL business. But this is his grand exit plan, similar to putting a ‘For Sale’ sign on the property instead of the information filtering out by word of mouth.

Now comes the task of finding buyers for the Braley Bunch—the biggest challenge the league has faced in years, and far more important than planting a team in Atlantic Canada.

Braley has been the financial lifeline for the CFL in B.C. since 1996 and Toronto in 2010, although he had been privately helping to finance the Argos as a silent partner with the previous ownership that rescued the franchise after the 2003 season.

When Braley bought the Lions in 1996, the club was in fragile financial shape. Although based in Burlington, Braley financed the team through its struggles and regularly made trips out west to oversee the organization. He was and still is the saviour of the Lions.

Braley did what he felt needed to be done because no one inside the province wanted anything to do with the team. He stepped up as a financier because he believed in the CFL, which was about to go into a freefall that found it teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in 1997. Braley made some astute hires, notably former general manager Bobby Ackles as president and CEO in 2002, which began the team’s turnaround. Ackles’ sudden death in 2008 left the team without its figurehead in the community, but by that time the team had become far sturdier.

And what of the Argos? The team has signed a new five-year lease with the Rogers Centre, but there is an option to leave before then. Without an alternate stadium for football, the Argos are in flux, which means selling the team is a far more acute problem than selling the Lions. The Lions are drawing an average of 27,000 fans through the first six home games this year—but the Argos have drawn an average of only 20,000. Despite winning the Grey Cup last year at home in the 100th anniversary of the game, and leading the East division this season, interest in the team has dropped.

Is there another Braley looming on the horizon to buy one or both of the franchises? The likelihood is no. The fact the CFL has one person owning two teams is a wart that has been cleverly covered.

So ask yourself: Why is there all this talk about expansion? The CFL played its third game in four years in Atlantic Canada last weekend and it drew lukewarm support. The only way the CFL can commit to a permanent franchise in the region is by building a proper stadium. But building one for just 10 games per year is foolish, no matter how wealthy a prospective owner may be. A stadium surrounded by an infrastructure consisting of other sources of revenue such as a commercial or housing complex is the way to go. But is there a need for something like this in either Halifax or Moncton?

Ottawa will enter the CFL for the third time in 2014, complete with a new stadium and owners with deep pockets. But these owners only had interest in a team provided the city would approve a plan to build a housing and commercial development in addition to the stadium. This model has become the norm, particularly with the federal government wanting no part of subsidizing the cost of stadiums.

Hamilton will play in a new stadium next year through provincial, municipal and private funding. But were it not for the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, the province would have had no interest in providing a financial helping hand. This was a gift from two levels of government. Team owner Bob Young has lost millions since buying the team after the 2003 season, but he has a commitment to the city. Any sane individual would have bailed on this bottomless financial pit by now, but Young is determined to restore the Ti-Cats to glory. The day Young decides he simply can’t stomach losing any more and the responsibility of taking care of the team is simply not worth it will pose the same question that looms over Braley’s clubs: Will anyone else want to buy this club?

The biggest source of income for the CFL is television money. Companies are not exactly lining up to attach their name or product to the CFL. Marketing the league is a constant grind that requires a stellar sales pitch, because in addition to attracting new sponsors there is also the task of convincing the current sponsors to extend their deals. Every team has to hustle to sell tickets and sponsorships.

Despite this, some clubs have done incredibly well, notably Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, which back in the mid-90s were bleeding badly. Saskatchewan has been printing money annually from sold-out games and robust licensing and merchandizing sales since winning the Cup in 2007. The Riders play host to the Cup this year and it looks like they will profit significantly. The Bombers have been a disaster on the field both last year and this year, but still have benefitted from solid ticket sales due to a new stadium. The stadium had been scheduled to open in 2012, but delays forced a postponement to 2013. However, Bombers fans were so excited about leaving the team’s old stadium that season tickets were scooped up with glee. The fact the team played in the 2011 Grey Cup also helped sales. It was the perfect storm of opportunity. It’s not one that’s likely to be easily recreated.

The CFL might feel good about itself based on the relative success of the past few years, but the muddy ownership situations in Toronto, B.C., and to a lesser extent Hamilton, provide the league with no certainty. As much as expansion seems like a possibility, ensuring all of the current teams are on solid ground is the bigger issue. The day Braley divests himself of ownership is the day the CFL has lost its biggest and most trusted investor. There may never be another one like him.

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