CFL commissioner Tom Wright announced Wednesday the league has reached an agreement with current Renegades owners Bernie Glieberman and Bill Smith to put the troubled franchise up for sale. Wright, board chairman Tom Robinson of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and B.C. Lions owner David Braley will head up an ownership committee.
But finding a new owner won’t be easy.
Ottawa hasn’t posted a winning record since returning to the CFL in 2002 and last year reportedly lost $4 million US. With season-ticket sales having dwindled to roughly 2,000, the absence of a solid front-office infrastructure and the loss of several key free agents, the Renegades’ 2006 prospects indeed look dim, with estimates the club could lose up to $6 million.
A logical ownership candidate would be Toronto businessman Eugene Melnyk, the owner of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. Wright admitted he hasn’t spoken to Melnyk, who whenever contacted about the Renegades has always been non-commital about any interest he might have in the CFL club.
“I have not spoken to Eugene Melnyk, that’s the short answer,” Wright said during a conference call. “As we go forward in the process we will be having opportunities to speak with perspective individuals.”
Yet with Smith no longer wishing to absorb any losses and Glieberman only willing to ante up $2.5 million, the CFL really had little choice but to start looking for new ownership. In the meantime, Glieberman and Smith will bankroll the club’s day-to-day operations, although no season tickets will sold until the club’s long-term future is decided.
“The fans in Ottawa do deserve to have clarity,” Wright said. “We will be committing over the next several weeks to making that decision.”
“We will be in a better position in early April to make that final determination. That’s when the fans in Ottawa will find out.”
Trouble is, that gives the CFL just three weeks to achieve a best-case scenario. If new ownership can’t be found, then governors must decide whether to use league monies to keep Ottawa afloat while searching for a new owner, suspend the club’s operations for a year, or simply fold the team.
And Wright wouldn’t offer any guarantees regarding the Renegades’ long-term future if new ownership can’t be found.
“What you want to be guaranteed of is we want to do this right,” he said. “If those right conditions aren’t there, then we wouldn’t do what is not right for the fans or for our league.”
Two years ago, the CFL bankrolled both the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats for an entire season until new local ownership could be found. The result has been a resounding success as both the Argos and Ticats have seen their attendance double since then.
But in a league where one team - generally regarded as the Edmonton Eskimos - makes money, many franchises can’t afford to spend the $200,000 to $500,000 each it would take to ensure the Renegades make it through the season. The prospect of folding Ottawa, and dividing league dispersal money just eight ways instead of nine, could actually be looked upon more favourably.
However, the decision to fold a franchise isn’t one the league can take lightly. Some of the CFL’s corporate sponsorships and its TV deal are based upon nine teams, not eight, and Ottawa’s departure would negatively impact those deals.
“We have some contractual clauses that require us to re-look at an agreement or to have some adjustments,” Wright said. “We have full visibility on those and have been in contact with our partners and will be in a better position to understand the full impact.”
“We feel that we will be able to manage that process and do what’s right for our partners and our fans.”
There’s also the issue of what Ottawa’s departure from the CFL would do to the league’s long-term vision of one day expanding into the Maritimes to become a balanced, coast-to-coast league. Ottawa is scheduled to face Montreal in the league’s second annual Touchdown Atlantic exhibition game at Husky Stadium in Halifax in June.
This is also the second Ottawa ownership crisis in as many years and marks the third time a club operated by the Glieberman has had trouble staying operational. Glieberman first came into the CFL in the 1990s as the owner of the Ottawa Rough Riders before starting up the expansion Shreveport Pirates.
There were many throughout the CFL who questioned Wright’s decision to bring the Gliebermans, Bernie and his son, Lonie, back to Ottawa last season. And it wasn’t long before those concerns were realized, first by the Gliebermans bringing in family friend Forrest Gregg, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who’d been out of the game for more than a decade, to serve as executive vice-president of football operations.
Then there was Lonie Glieberman’s controversial Mardi Gras Madness promotion, in which women competed for a cash prize by collecting beads from male spectators using questionable means. And at season’s end, there was the messy firing of former head coach Joe Paopao and his staff with the team still competing for a playoff spot.
In the off-season, Gregg, in a phone interview with an Ottawa talk radio show, couldn’t remember the name of the team’s starting quarterback, Kerry Joseph.
Wright, in a roundabout way, admitted it was a mistake to have the Gliebermans back in the league.
“We understand the situation that occurred,” he said. “The rear-view mirror an easy way to approach things.”
“Ultimately I think we just have to turn the page and look forward.”