CFL GAME PLAN TARGETS MEXICO
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.”
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 game.