Will the Mexican deal go south, too?
A decade after the CFL’s ill-fated U.S. expansion, league’s latest gambit seems needlessly desperate
If the history of the CFL has taught us anything, it’s taught us the Canadian game gets into big trouble when its reach exceeds its grasp.
The most glaring example, of course, came in the mid’90s when the league embarked on a ruinous expansion plan to the United States that lasted two years and left behind a story that now seems pretty funny but at the time almost killed the venerable institution.
If you doubt that, I have four words for you: the Las Vegas Posse.
But that wasn’t the only time the CFL aimed for the stars and shot itself in the foot. There was Bruce McNall’s Toronto Argos featuring Rocket Ismail, Nelson Skalbania’s Montreal Alouettes and its many NFL refugees and a couple of failures in Ottawa before they finally got things right.
The CFL, it seems, works best when it’s true to its roots, a Canadian entity that survives on the unique threedown game, it’s own traditions and its permanent hold in some markets.
Which brings us around to the news from Grey Cup week that new commissioner Randy Ambrosie has signed a letter of intent to the grow the game in Mexico through a relationship with, ahem, the Liga de Futbol Americano Professional.
“It just lays out the framework of our relationship,” Ambrosie said during Grey Cup week, before adding: “It’s all about sharing resources and then it’s going to lay out an opportunity to ... play a CFL game or games in Mexico.”
I mean, what can possibly go wrong here.
The Ambrosie Doctrine, such as it is, was short on details but long on ambition as it was rolled out this week. There’s talk of playing a CFL game in Mexico next year although 2020 is the more likely date. There’s talk of using the LFA as a feeder for the CFL. There is talk about CFL teams each carrying one Mexican national on its roster.
Sadly, there is no talk about expansion to Puerto Vallarta or Cancun.
But the Mexico plan is also part of Ambrosie’s larger expansionist vision for the Canadian game which includes the long-awaited 10th franchise in Halifax but also targets Europe and various domestic leagues in, er, non-traditional football markets.
Again, sounds like a foolproof plan to me.
So why now? Why has the CFL chosen this time to announce its curious new relationship with Mexico and its strategy to build alliances with other countries. Given the current condition of the league, the timing is interesting. So what do they hope to get out all this?
Don’t know and it’s quite possible the CFL doesn’t know, either.
As mentioned off the top, the league has been down this road before and it usually ends in disaster. But in those cases it was backed into a corner and trying to connect on a Hail Mary.
At the time of American expansion, the league teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and needed franchise fees in order to survive. Had the plan actually worked — and they were close in Baltimore and, to a lesser extent, Sacramento — so much the better but their primary motivation was much more basic. Toronto, as usual, was struggling and McNall and his partners — John Candy and Wayne Gretzky — thought they could capture the GTA through star power. It was a similar story with Skalbania in Montreal.
The league’s current circumstances aren’t as dire. But there are troubling signs.
The CFL continues to thrive in the Prairies, Ottawa and Hamilton but it’s anemic in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, its three largest markets. The TV deal with TSN, which made the league viable through the aughts and into this decade, expires in 2021 and it’s unlikely the new agreement will pay out at the same rate.
The collective-bargaining agreement with the CFL Players Association also expires in May and there are a couple of battleground issues, the most contentious being long-term health care for retired players.
The Canadian Press also revealed this week that part of the agreement with the LFA includes a “promise” that each CFL team will carry a Mexican player next year.
Guess how that went over with the players’ union.
“I think (the Mexican partnership) is the beginning of a new beginning for us,” Ambrosie said.
And who knows. Maybe this can work. In his short time on the job, we’ve seen Ambrosie doesn’t discourage easily. Mexico also offers a market of 120 million and the game has a following there. Maybe it won’t be a home run for the CFL but a standup double would be helpful.
There is a sense, after all, that the league has maxed out its revenue streams in Canada, that any future growth in our country would be incremental at best.
At worst? Well, we’ve seen the CFL on death’s door a couple of times in our lifetime.
But wherever they go from here, Mexico can’t be seen as a magic bullet. Right now it’s intriguing, in the way Las Vegas, Shreveport and Memphis were intriguing a generation ago. But if it’s seen as anything more than that, this will end badly.
Funny. But badly.