NFL Loan Helps Cfl With Another Season

EDMONTON, Alberta - The Canadian Football League decided to ask for help shortly after its teams began mistakenly drafting dead players.

The CFL, with its three downs, 20-yard end zones and 55-yard line, had teetered on the edge of disaster for years, struggling with its teams' instability and its failed expansion into the U.S. The National Football League came to the rescue of its Canadian cousin in April with a $3 million loan and marketing help.

The league finished its season with the Nov. 16 Grey Cup stronger, if not totally financially secure, after the one-shot injection of NFL money, with hopes of developing the sport among Canadian youth and increasing revenue through better marketing.

"There's really a strong feeling in the NFL that, combined with our international marketing, we should help sustain football in Canada," said Peter Abitante, the NFL's international manager of public relations.

The influx of money was vital to the CFL, where players make an average of $44,000 Canadian ($31,600 U.S.). CFL President Jeff Giles said the approximately $500,000 (Canadian) given to each team was used for marketing and that none of it went toward salaries.

Seven months into their marketing partnership, Abitante said the NFL is concentrating on developing football at the grass roots level in Canada. NFL players Kordell Stewart, Brett Favre and Tim Biakabutuka, who grew up in Montreal, have promoted the CFL on Canadian television.

Abitante said the NFL also has introduced punt, pass and kick promotions across Canada and set up a football experience exhibit at the recent American Bowl in Toronto, an exhibition game between the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers.

Marketing help

Even as the Toronto Argonauts, owned by Belgian brewer Interbrew SA, are headed for a $4 million loss this past season, the NFL also is helping CFL owners build for the future by helping negotiate new licensing contracts, corporate sponsorships and television contracts with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and ESPN.

The CBC broadcast 23 games this year. ESPN broadcast three games while ESPN2 broadcast another eight games. Both contracts expire after the 1997 season, and the league and network are negotiating another agreement. Canada's sports network TSN broadcasts 40 games a year in a contract that expires after the 1999 season.

"The NFL has really helped us with television negotiations, determining what our property is worth," Giles said.

Sponsorships also might be coming from Molson Cos., which recently lost its prized contract with the National Hockey League. The brewer is negotiating with the CFL about becoming a title sponsor.

"I think we'll see more solid sponsorships and licensing deals next year," Abitante said. "Our relationship with the CFL is only seven months old, so we've just been getting to know the people here and looking over how they work."

Troubled history

There hasn't been much positive work to look over.

The CFL added a team in Sacramento, California, in 1993, then went into a full-scale expansion into the U.S. The following seasons teams were added in Baltimore, Las Vegas and Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, the league said it would have teams in 12 U.S. cities by 1997. There aren't any today.

"It was an experiment," said CFL marketing manager Jim Neish. "People didn't come, especially when the U.S. college football season started."

CFL teams created laughable headlines when short-staffed scouting departments led teams to draft dead players in the 1995 amateur draft and the 1996 dispersal draft after the Las Vegas franchise folded.

The Ottawa Rough Riders picked defensive end Darrel Robertson in the April 1995 amateur draft when the Las Vegas Posse folded. He died in a car crash the preceding December.

A year later, the Montreal Alouettes drafted defensive James Eggink from the Northern Illinois University in the fifth round of the amateur draft, unaware that he succumbed to cancer a few months earlier.

The CFL is hoping that kind of publicity is in its past. Under its agreement with the NFL, the winner of the Grey Cup game will play the champion of next summer's World League of American Football, perhaps using NFL rules on the wider and longer CFL field.

Such NFL stars as former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Warren Moon got their starts in professional football in the CFL. Players from U.S. colleges still have long careers in the league.

Mike Clemons, a nine-year running back for the Argonauts out of the College of William and Mary, said Canadian football has too much action for the CFL to fold.

"The CFL is electric, it's far more exciting than the NFL," said Clemons, whose team faces the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the championship game in Edmonton, Alberta. "You watch an NFL game and there are a few highlights. Here, every play is geared toward action. There aren't any fair catches, you see players run back missed field goals. This league's going to be just fine."