Bills’ plan exposes NFL-CFL relationship

By Perry Lefko,

It seems a bit bizarre that, on the one hand, certain factions of the Canadian Football League are embracing the prospect of playing host to a National Football League game, while another faction is opposed to it.

The NFL may give the green light to play a regular-season game in Canada next year as part of its plans to market its product outside of the U.S. The plan will include a game in London, England within the next two weeks (New York Giants vs. Miami Dolphins on October 28 at Wembley Stadium in London, England).

The NFL deliberately avoided staging a game in Canada this year out of respect for the Toronto Argonauts ownership, which is playing host to the Grey Cup for the first time in 15 years.

Three groups are bidding for a regular-season game in Canada and they include B.C., Edmonton and Toronto. The B.C. and Edmonton bids are backed by the ownership groups of their respective CFL franchises, while the Toronto bid is from the group headed by Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey and includes Ted Rogers, chairman of Rogers Communications, Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., and some other Toronto-based sportsmen with big bank accounts.

There has been a widespread rumour that the NFL will award the game to Edmonton and will feature the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos, whose owner, Pat Bowlen, is an Edmonton native.

The reason the CFL proprietors want an NFL game is because it’s a chance to make some money.

The Argo owners want no part of playing host to a game because it impacts on their team and their territory. While they may be able to make money on the game, politically it could be seen as promoting the NFL at the expense of their own responsibility as CFL caretakers.

Because the Godfrey group includes Rogers, which owns and operates the Rogers Centre, it has the stadium in place to do whatever is needed to cozy up to the NFL.

What is an interesting sidebar is the current Argos ownership opted not to build its own stadium and control its destiny because of overtures by Rogers Communications to improve the landlord-tenant relationship at the Rogers Centre. The Argos were given a better lease and could take advantage of the improvements made at Rogers Centre to enhance the spectator experience.

Now the Argos ownership and the Godfrey/Rogers group are in a battle over the prospect of the NFL coming to Toronto, if only for a pre-season or regular-season game. The Argo ownership is trying to align itself with other CFL teams to buy an NFL team for Toronto. The idea is only in the infancy stage and doesn’t appear doable on the surface because it’s unlikely to receive buy-in from all the CFL franchises, some of which don’t have the financial resources. But the idea is to join together to fight the Godfrey group and preserve the CFL and its presence in Toronto.

The Godfrey group is taking proactive measures to realize its dream of owning an NFL franchise in Toronto by working with the Buffalo Bills to play host to a pre-season game in Toronto next year and at least one regular-season game there in 2009. The plan has received approval from Erie County, but needs further rubber stamping from the NFL, which may vote on it Tuesday at a scheduled board of governors meeting. The Bills’ plan wasn’t originally scheduled on the agenda and may not go to a vote just yet. Judging by the angst that has resulted in the CFL from this latest development, there may be attempts by first-year commissioner Mark Cohon to persuade his NFL rookie counterpart, Roger Goodell, to make sure the proposal is voted down or, at the very least, put on hold. The NFL’s plan to play regular-season games outside of the U.S. is completely separate from the Bills’ initiative.

The NFL and CFL have a loose working agreement. The two sides formed a partnership in 1997, in which the NFL gave the CFL a $4 million interest-free loan and among the things the NFL received was the right to sign CFL option-year players for a two-month window. It took a long time for the CFL to finally pay back the loan and the two sides have been working on the language of a new working agreement.

Clearly it needs to be tightened from the CFL perspective. How can you stop individual NFL franchises from wanting to play games in CFL cities — which the Bills want to do — while encouraging CFL proprietors from wanting to play host to NFL-sanctioned games?

The NFL may stop the Bills’ initiative, but will it stop its own plan to market its product in Canada with a game it sanctions and endorses? And will it stop owners of CFL teams from playing host to the game?

This really is bizarre.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.