CFL GAME PLAN TAR­GETS MEX­ICO

Montreal Gazette - - SPORTS - DAN BARNES dbarnes@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/sports­dan­barnes

Os­car Perez dreams of a day when the Fun­di­dores of Mon­ter­rey, in their black and yel­low jer­seys, clash with the Hamil­ton Tiger-Cats in black and gold, the gritty grid­iron rep­re­sen­ta­tives of two steel towns do­ing their best to grow the game.

Perez, the CEO of Mex­ico’s Liga de Fut­bol Amer­i­cano Pro­fe­sional (LFA), the coun­try’s only pro­fes­sional grid­iron loop, thinks as big as his Cana­dian Foot­ball League coun­ter­part, com­mis­sioner Randy Am­brosie. The two dream­ers have been col­lab­o­rat­ing on a multi-phase part­ner­ship.

“We have dreamt a lot of things, but in or­der to win a foot­ball game you first have to score a touch­down and we are start­ing to work on that,” Perez said through a trans­la­tor. “If both leagues work hard and smart and with a sin­cere and pos­i­tive spirit, we can achieve great things.”

To start that jour­ney, they are work­ing on an ex­change of play­ers. Perez said it is his pref­er­ence to place at least nine and hope­fully 18 Mex­i­can play­ers with the nine CFL teams for the 2019 sea­son. That plan may also in­volve Cana­dian play­ers, per­haps ju­niors or un­drafted kids out of CIS, suit­ing up in Mex­ico.

The LFA is plan­ning for its fourth sea­son be­gin­ning in Fe­bru­ary. Its 10 teams will play seven reg­u­lar-sea­son games through the end of April. CFL camps open in June, so the cal­en­dars com­ple­ment one an­other.

“A fu­ture goal would be to bring the best LFA talent to the CFL, which would show the Mex­i­can fan base that the CFL is giv­ing the best Mex­i­can talent an op­por­tu­nity to shine in a league with such his­tory and pop­u­lar­ity,” said Perez. “This would help in­crease the pop­u­lar­ity of the CFL in Mex­ico, which is a very im­por­tant step. If all goes right it would be a very log­i­cal step to bring CFL games to Mex­ico.

“To­day we have very good re­la­tion­ships with tele­vi­sion com­pa­nies in Mex­ico City and they are very in­ter­ested in trans­mit­ting this new con­tent. This is planned to be a long-term re­la­tion­ship. In or­der for that to hap­pen, we need to take solid steps.”

Am­brosie sug­gested in an in­ter­view with Post­media’s Tim Baines at the end of Oc­to­ber that reg­u­lar-sea­son games in Mex­ico might be a pos­si­bil­ity next year.

Any agree­ment to place Mex­i­can play­ers on CFL teams or stage CFL games in Mex­ico ob­vi­ously re­quires mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sions be­tween the CFL and the CFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, and even­tu­ally the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of a new col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment.

“We’ll ob­vi­ously want to en­gage them in a con­ver­sa­tion once we’ve got some more def­i­ni­tion,” said Am­brosie. “I don’t see any rea­son why, with some good hard work … we couldn’t have some play­ers from around the world po­ten­tially play­ing in the CFL in the 2019 sea­son. That’s my hope. Could we see some Cana­dian col­lege play­ers, per­haps play­ers from ju­nior, play­ing around the world? I hope we see that in 2019 as well.”

Am­brosie is de­ter­mined to go global with the CFL brand, its play­ers and coaches. He trav­elled to Mex­ico City to meet with Perez and other LFA of­fi­cials. He will be host­ing Perez later this month at the Grey Cup in Ed­mon­ton. And he talked up the CFL and its play­ers dur­ing a col­li­sion sports con­fer­ence in Lon­don, Eng­land.

“What have we ac­com­plished in Mex­ico? We’re hav­ing a great di­a­logue with them about a multi-phase ap­proach to grow the game,” said Am­brosie.

“We were frankly over­whelmed by just how en­gaged they were and how en­thu­si­as­tic they were about the game of foot­ball and the CFL, so those things were all good. We’re work­ing with the LFA now on a frame­work for a part­ner­ship.

“We are get­ting a very strong re­cep­tion to the idea that the CFL is an op­por­tu­nity for play­ers from around the world to come and play here. We’re learn­ing a lot about the quality of play in coun­tries around the world. There also seems to be a nice ap­petite for the idea that Cana­dian play­ers can po­ten­tially go and con­tinue to de­velop their skills in leagues around the world.”

Rick LeLacheur, for one, ap­pre­ci­ates the bold­ness of Am­brosie’s vi­sion. “It’s not the same old, same old,” said LeLacheur, cur­rent pres­i­dent of the B.C. Lions, who held the same po­si­tion with the Ed­mon­ton Es­ki­mos for 10 sea­sons and in that role worked with for­mer com­mis­sion­ers Mike Lysko, David Bra­ley, Tom Wright and Mark Co­hon.

“Hope­fully we can get at least one part of the vi­sion done in the next year or so and I think Mex­ico might be the best op­por­tu­nity,” said LeLacheur.

“And I don’t know ex­actly where it might land, whether it’s play­ing a cou­ple games down there, get­ting some of their play­ers up here.”

He’s also com­mit­ted to the idea of send­ing ju­niors or CIS kids to Mex­ico for a year or two to en­hance their pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment be­fore taking a run at a CFL ros­ter.

“And maybe there is a way some of our coaches could go down there too,” said LeLacheur. “I’d like to see it as a two-way street, where we could use it for some de­vel­op­ment pur­poses. And of course it wouldn’t hurt to have a TV con­tract in Mex­ico.”

Games in the LFA typ­i­cally draw less than 2,000 fans to a 6,000-seat sta­dium in Mex­ico City. A CFL game played in a larger sta­dium could draw a big­ger crowd, but how much big­ger? In late July, the world ju­nior cham­pi­onship fi­nal game be­tween host Mex­ico and Canada drew a crowd es­ti­mated at be­tween 25,000 and 33,000 at Olympic Sta­dium, which seats 72,000. The last two NFL games played at Mex­ico City’s Aztec Sta­dium av­er­aged 77,000 fans. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 study, Mex­ico boasts the most NFL fans out­side of the USA, with about 40 mil­lion of them.

LeLacheur said he’d have “to see the num­bers first” be­fore com­mit­ting CFL re­sources and fi­nances to stag­ing a game in Mex­ico.

Ac­cord­ing to Perez, the plan and the part­ner­ship be­tween the LFA and CFL is all about tap­ping into some very large num­bers.

“It’s all about com­bin­ing the two mar­kets, the 30 mil­lion Cana­di­ans and the 150 mil­lion Mex­i­cans and cre­at­ing a market of 180 mil­lion peo­ple pas­sion­ate about foot­ball,” he said. “That will make our leagues more com­pet­i­tive.”

There are foot­ball fans who will sug­gest Am­brosie has to fix the holes in the fab­ric of the CFL first, be­fore go­ing global. The Toronto Arg­onauts draw flies, av­er­ag­ing just 14,211 fans per game at BMO Field. The Mon­treal Alou­ettes’ at­ten­dance is in such se­ri­ous de­cline that team own­er­ship will spend money to shrink the ca­pac­ity of Per­ci­val Mol­son Sta­dium by 14.5 per cent. The Lions av­er­aged over 19,000, about the same as last year. Those three cities were the trou­ble spots when Am­brosie took over in July 2017 and they re­main so more than a year later.

But LeLacheur be­lieves is­sues like at­ten­dance can be ad­dressed at the same time as Am­brosie works on the 2.0 ini­tia­tive.

“I can see them run­ning con­cur­rently, do­ing both at once. I’d love for us to go play a game in China,” said LeLacheur. “There are so many peo­ple in the Lower Main­land from China and South­east Asia.”

Big ideas like that will have plenty of room to grow un­der the 2.0 ini­tia­tive.

“All men have their time and all times have their men,” said Perez, quot­ing his late fa­ther’s phi­los­o­phy of life. “But our time has no prece­dent be­cause of tech­nol­ogy and so­cial me­dia tools that help you dream and act in a big way.”

PE­DRO PARDO/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES/FILES

The CFL is deep in con­ver­sa­tions about a multi-phase part­ner­ship with Mex­ico’s Liga de Fut­bol Amer­i­cano Pro­fe­sional, start­ing next year. CFL com­mis­sioner Randy Am­brosie has sug­gested that player ex­changes or reg­u­lar-sea­son CFL games in Mex­ico could be pos­si­ble. Shown here is a 2016 Mex­i­can col­lege foot­ball match.

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