CFL out­reach be­gins in Mex­ico City


National Post (National Edition) - - SPORTS - Dan Barnes in Mex­ico City

The Cana­dian Foot­ball League has come here to put flesh on the bones of Com­mis­sioner Randy Ambrosie’s global ini­tia­tive to ex­pand the CFL brand.

A com­bine Sun­day and player draft Mon­day will the­o­ret­i­cally tap into the Mex­i­can foot­ball tal­ent pool at both the pro and uni­ver­sity level. These ground­break­ing ac­tiv­i­ties could also be seen as the un­furl­ing of the CFL 2.0 blue­print for po­ten­tial in­cur­sions into Europe and Asia.

“I see this as a re­ally big, im­por­tant first step but it’s part of a big idea,” said Ambrosie, who has also sched­uled ex­ploratory meet­ings with foot­ball of­fi­cials from Ger­many, France, Aus­tria and all four Nordic coun­tries in the next few weeks.

“I think all of these pieces are part of what ul­ti­mately will be this mag­nif­i­cent patch­work quilt called CFL 2.0.”

While Ambrosie and pro­po­nents of his plan call it a bold move be­yond Canada’s bor­ders, crit­ics main­tain his at­ten­tion and the league’s money is bet­ter spent on domestic is­sues like the im­pend­ing Col­lec­tive Bar­gain­ing Agree­ment with play­ers and con­stantly flag­ging at­ten­dance in Toronto, Mon­treal and Van­cou­ver.

But it’s lu­di­crous to sug­gest Ambrosie and the CFL lead­er­ship won’t be able to groom his pet in­ter­na­tional project and still at­tend to the most press­ing domestic is­sues in a timely fash­ion. And the stake­hold­ers most af­fected by CFL 2.0 — team gov­er­nors and pres­i­dents — have al­ready been con­vinced it’s a worth­while gam­bit, per­haps in part be­cause it’s a min­i­mal budget ex­pense. There hasn’t been a huge cap­i­tal out­lay.

“Be­cause re­ally what we’re talk­ing about is peo­ple,” said Ambrosie. “And it’s some­thing we’re al­ready good at, re­cruit­ing great ath­letes.”

So the CFL has come to this sprawl­ing met­ro­pol­i­tan area of 21 mil­lion to be­gin that global tal­ent search. Fifty-one Mex­i­can play­ers have been in­vited to run, jump, lift and be in­ter­viewed by CFL scouts at a Sun­day com­bine in 33,000-seat Es­ta­dio Azul. As many as 36 will be drafted by the nine Cana­dian teams on Mon­day.

Some are se­niors at Mex­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, some hail from the eight-team Liga de Fut­bol Amer­i­cano Pro­fe­sional (LFA), and oth­ers grad­u­ated years ago from uni­ver­sity and haven’t played se­ri­ous foot­ball in ages.

Wide re­ceiver Hum­berto Nor­iega, for in­stance, could be the prize of the com­bine, ac­cord­ing to a cou­ple of ob­servers. He’s a big phys­i­cal spec­i­men who led the na­tion in re­ceiv­ing yards for a cou­ple of years. But Nor­iega is a lawyer who hasn’t played any­where lately and no­body knows good how he’ll look on Sun­day.

But ap­pear­ances at this com­bine might well be de­ceiv­ing.

“I think they will find good qual­ity play­ers with good foot­ball skills. Prob­a­bly they will not have good times for the 40 yard (dash) or the broad jump, but on the field they can play,” said Fox Sports foot­ball com­men­ta­tor Car­los Rosado.

Be­cause the LFA pays its play­ers a rel­a­tive pit­tance — 10,000 pe­sos or just $690 per month dur­ing the four­month spring sea­son — most play­ers work full-time, prac­tise spar­ingly and play a game per week.

What’s more, half of the eight LFA teams are lo­cated in the Mex­ico City area, so many uni­ver­sity grads in other lo­cales, even those with plenty of foot­ball acu­men, take a pass on the LFA and con­cen­trate on ca­reers that pay bet­ter and al­low them to stay closer to home. The aim of the com­bine was to get the best play­ers from all those groups onto the field.

“We’ve got very good tal­ent here in Mex­ico. I think it’s com­men­su­rate with what you would have at the col­lege level in Canada,” said Eric Fisher, a Kansas City na­tive who has coached high school and uni­ver­sity ball in Mex­ico for 15 years.

“We grad­u­ated quite a few fantastic play­ers over the last few years. But I haven’t seen them for a cou­ple years and don’t know what kind of shape they’re go­ing to be in.

“They’ve been work­ing, so they’re com­ing out from be­hind a desk. They would have still been ac­tive, and they’re young so they’re cross-fit­ting and maybe play­ing some to­chito (flag foot­ball).”

Fisher was a mem­ber of the six-man com­mit­tee that se­lected play­ers for the com­bine. He be­lieves they should have capped in­vi­ta­tions at 30 or 40 to wow CFL scouts with a core of un­de­ni­able Mex­i­can tal­ent.

But the CFL is open to the idea of a two-tier draft; play­ers who might make ros­ters im­me­di­ately, and oth­ers who are longer-term projects. And the LFA clearly wanted to fling open the doors to as many play­ers as pos­si­ble, invit­ing 12 re­ceivers, 10 de­fen­sive line­men, seven de­fen­sive backs, six lineback­ers, five of­fen­sive line­men, four kick­ers, three run­ning backs, three quar­ter­backs and one full­back to the com­bine.

“We’re not just think­ing of the LFA. We’re think­ing of the de­vel­op­ment of Mex­i­can foot­ball,” said Com­mis­sioner Ale­jan­dro Jaimes. “We want more kids to dream to play pro­fes­sional.”

The CFL ac­tu­ally rep­re­sents real hope for Mex­i­can play­ers, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom can only dream about tak­ing a shot at a Na­tional Foot­ball League ros­ter.

“With Canada com­ing in, they’re look­ing at it as a vi­able op­tion to play pro­fes­sion­ally,” Fisher said of his play­ers at the Univer­si­dad de las Amer­i­cas Pue­bla, lo­cated 130 kilo­me­tres from Mex­ico City. “When you’re look­ing at Cana­dian dol­lars, here in Mex­ico that can be a real pos­i­tive in­come. And it’s a higher level of ball for them.”

The prospect of plac­ing Mex­i­can, Ger­man and French play­ers on CFL ros­ters plays into the ul­ti­mate goal of CFL 2.0; reach­ing mil­lions of new fans through in­ter­na­tional broad­cast and stream­ing deals. Some Mex­i­can foot­ball fans would surely pay to watch Hum­berta Nor­iega catch passes for the Toronto Arg­onauts.

And there are is­sues to be solved, like the des­ig­na­tion of Mex­i­can or French or Ger­man play­ers. Will it mean ros­ter ex­pan­sion and higher salary caps? Ambrosie said he will tackle those ques­tions in con­junc­tion with the CFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion when they ne­go­ti­ate the CBA.

For now, he’s ready to take the first step and he has a will­ing part­ner in the LFA, a mod­est league that kicks off its fourth sea­son in Fe­bru­ary with eight teams, up from six last sea­son and four in 2016.

Jaimes, the LFA com­mis­sioner, wants to see two reg­u­lar sea­son CFL games played in Mex­ico, start­ing in 2020. He wants to see coach­ing ex­changes and Cana­dian col­lege grads in the LFA, though that won’t hap­pen this sea­son.

He also has a much big­ger, far less re­al­is­tic dream for the fledg­ling part­ner­ship with the CFL.

“We are think­ing we could maybe have a Mex­i­can team in the CFL or a CFL team in the LFA. I think it could be a pos­si­bil­ity,” Jaimes said.

“We are not closed to any idea. We spend a lot of hours talk­ing. For­mal meet­ings. In­for­mal meet­ings. I think it’s not short-term or medi­umterm goal, it should be longterm.”

The LFA plays four-down Amer­i­can ball, and the rules dis­crep­ancy is just one rea­son why there won’t ever be a CFL team in Mex­ico.

And if their part­ner­ship is to sur­vive long term, the LFA has to sur­vive its cur­rent grow­ing pains. The health of any sports league de­pends on TV money, and the LFA doesn’t charge for rights. In fact, it pays to pro­duce games for Fox Sports.

Just as the CBA has to be Job 1 for Ambrosie, get­ting a TV deal is that cru­cial for Jaimes.

“The CFL is very im­por­tant for us but it is not our main fo­cus,” he said. “Our main fo­cus is our reg­u­lar sea­son. We need to have a good reg­u­lar sea­son to have more fans in the sta­di­ums so that TV looks to the LFA and so they should think to pay for the TV rights. The net­works don’t think we have a good enough prod­uct yet to pay for it. We’re work­ing to be stronger.”

TSN pays a re­ported $40-mil­lion-plus per year for the CFL rights, al­most cov­er­ing the salary cap for all nine teams. The LFA’s sin­gle-en­tity busi­ness model is in­stead funded by its key in­vestors, spon­sor­ships, ticket sales, con­ces­sions and mer­chan­dis­ing. The league’s co-own­ers pay for sta­dium rentals, travel and ac­com­mo­da­tions, and the mod­est salaries of the coaches and play­ers.

“As you can see it’s not enough for a player to live on foot­ball,” said Jaimes. “This is very im­por­tant. All of our play­ers are work­ing. We want one day for the Mex­i­can play­ers to be able to live on the salary of foot­ball. It’s one of our goals.”

Ambrosie’s global vi­sion and busi­ness fo­cus has cer­tainly changed the way the league sees and presents it­self. Soon enough he’ll pre­side over the ad­di­tion of a history-mak­ing 10th Cana­dian fran­chise in Hal­i­fax. And he is adamant the CFL tap into the grow­ing ap­petite for the game out­side the coun­try’s bor­ders.

Eric Fisher, who coached high school and uni­ver­sity foot­ball in Mex­ico for 15 years, com­pares the tal­ent level to that of Cana­dian uni­ver­sity ball.

Car­los Rosado

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