If the Ottawa Renegades are sold in the next week, this city might be welcoming back the Grey Cup Game sooner than expected.
The Citizen has learned that future Grey Cup games are being discussed as bargaining chips in an effort to keep the Renegades alive in 2006. It is believed the Canadian Football League would be willing to promise a new Ottawa owner a Grey Cup in the next five years in order to close a sale.
To a buyer, a Grey Cup might mean the difference between fielding a team in 2006 and mothballing the Renegades until 2007, when the brunt of the financial burden is gone. It would also help offset a purchaser's estimated losses this season, projected to be at least $4 million.
The Grey Cup is worth at least $2 million to the host club. The league provided a similar Grey Cup guarantee to the original group of expansion investors who founded the Renegades in 2001, and the league's championship game was played at Frank Clair Stadium in 2004.
The CFL must find a new owner for the Renegades before the end of next week or the team will not play in 2006, and there is an intense debate going on between CFL stakeholders.
Some officials believe the Renegades could be suspended for 2006 and successfully revived soon after.
Others are adamant that the Renegades must play this season or the Ottawa market will be lost forever.
Still others are ready to abort Ottawa and have no appetite to help fund the Renegades even if it means securing what the league calls the "right" owner.
The Grey Cup bartering treads on sensitive ground for the league's three-member search committee, which is talking to interested parties. It could mean some CFL teams will be asked to take on a disproportionate share of the financial burden associated with saving the Renegades.
Officially, Grey Cup games beyond 2007 have not yet been assigned.
Still, CFL governors have a strong understanding of the schedule for the rest of the decade. The league wants the Grey Cup to move around the country. There are nine teams in the CFL, and each franchise would play host the money-making event once every nine years.
According to that formula, the Edmonton Eskimos, Montreal Alouettes and Calgary Stampeders all stand to play host to games between 2008 and 2011 and may be asked to move backwards in the queue to sweeten the pot for a prospective Renegades buyer. Conveniently, those franchises are among the best-equipped to make sacrifices, and it is believed officials on other teams have appealed for their co-operation.
The Stampeders and the Eskimos are the only two CFL clubs that consistently make money, and neither is banking on future Grey Cup profits for financial stability. Alouettes owner Robert Wetenhall has often mentioned the importance of Ottawa as a geographic rival for his franchise.
For now, it is unknown whether any Grey Cup deals have been cut. What is becoming clear, however, is that the league is in deep discussions with one of three credible groups it has already met.
A southern Ontario-based group shares the opinion that the Renegades must play in 2006. This group is urgently trying to gather information to determine whether the team is prepared to kick off.
Meanwhile, one would-be buyer on the periphery is Calgary businessman Bruce Urban, who yesterday authored a quick flip-flop.
In an interview with an Edmonton newspaper last week, Urban, owner of Western RV Country, said another season in Ottawa would be "suicide" and it had proven it was not "the right city." Urban further pledged he would move the team to Halifax, but that city lacks a suitable stadium.
Relocation is contrary to what the CFL is trying to achieve. The league couldn't care less about preserving the Renegades, but it cares immensely about preserving the Ottawa market.
The league also wants a squeaky-clean buyer to sell to a cynical Ottawa fan base. Urban, who spoke with CFL commissioner Tom Wright on Wednesday, would quickly be bombarded with relocation questions, even if he has changed his tune.
"Tom turned my opinion around on that and made me believe Ottawa could work as a football town," Urban said yesterday. "But you're right, (fans) might have to worry about me moving the team. The CFL has no control over that. The market will make that decision. ... That's not an option at this point, but it might be in the future."
The league has a list of individuals who have previously expressed interest in buying franchises. While Urban is on it, he was never contacted by the search committee.
He owns a National Lacrosse League franchise, but that makes some in the CFL nervous that his interest in the Renegades will be linked to the success of the Edmonton Rush. The league went down that road with Brad Watters, the former president of the Renegades and the NLL's Ottawa Rebel.
Coincidentally, the Rush is the resurrection of the now-defunct Rebel. Urban says he is only interested in the Renegades if he can partner with someone he called a high-profile investor based in eastern Canada.
"If it's not a good deal, I'll let someone else buy it," he said yesterday. "I look at the western teams and I look at Ottawa, and it has the population, the wealth, and all the things you need to make it successful.''
How can it not work? It can't be that scientific, but maybe I have blurred vision because of what I see in Calgary and Edmonton."