To build on the momentum the CFL has created the past few years, a lot hinges on what happens in the nation's capital.
The CFL can only pray that something resembling yesterday's Grey Cup will appear again in 2007. With another big city conquered -- Vancouver's Cup week was infinitely superior to the one in 1999 when they had to paper the house -- the league looks forward with equal parts confidence and wariness.
At least they should.
After a guaranteed success in Winnipeg next year, the Grey Cup returns to Toronto in 2007 for the first time in 15 years, and it is necessary that this be a watershed event. With the runoff going in the right direction.
A great Toronto Grey Cup week -- and the timbre of the game itself is a big factor in that -- would amplify the tailwind that the CFL has created the past few years and mount incredible momentum in all areas of the game. Toronto, remember, is where about 80 per cent of the league's corporate sponsors and advertisers are headquartered. There is already a pretty good buzz about the three-down game, and the CFL can crank that up to a deafening level.
No one is denying the positives of the past two years, certainly not the CFL. All of the necessary indicators are on the rise: live gate, TV audiences; advertising; corporate sponsorships; street talk. But there are, as always, hungry sharks lurking underneath these apparently placid waters.
This is the CFL, which often stands for Can't Feel Lighthearted, because there is usually a really bad joke lurking just around the corner. Right now, that corner would be somewhere on Bank Street in Ottawa. Just because the league itself is healthy doesn't mean that an individual franchise can't blow its own head off and set the whole body wobbling again.
It happened two years ago, in two different places, both of them located in the very province where the Renegades are crashing down a blind alley without brakes or reverse gear. It's bad enough that the Gades are falling into repeat patterns on the field: raise hopes in early summer and smash them to bits in early fall. When they start to repeat history off the field, as they've threatened to do for about 18 months now, then there's a real problem.
And that problem will manifest itself at the gate. Very early, because what are you going to sell the good burghers of Bytown this off-season? Hope? They've already had that as a home-cooked meal and are still taking the leftovers to work. John Jenkins? Great guy, fun quote, and he's had some CFL successâ€¦ a long time ago.
Yup, he can be outrageous too, but Ottawa fans have enough of that between the white lines. Forrest Gregg? Puh-leez. People in Ottawa might have been born at night, but it wasn't last night. The Gliebermans? Oh, how retro. Quarterbacks? Maybe they haven't noticed that while rolling stones don't gather Maas, the Ticats do. Or that Casey Printers is probably beyond their current reach. Or that the incumbent group isn't that fond of Kerry Joseph, who needs a line and someone besides Josh Ranek to support him. Free Agents? The gate is opening to let folks out, not in.
In this country, football is no different than economics. Ottawa can take you down more quickly than you can possibly imagine. If the rumours are indeed true that there's a movement afoot to draft our old buddy, minority owner Bill Smith, into a more active financial and public role, then we say go for it, Smitty. While the Gliebermans say they'll keep financing the big losses, they're eventually not going to be able to, or want to, live up to that promise. If they keep going the way they are, those losses will keep accelerating and the franchise will become untenable. To anyone.
The league needs an even number of teams, but it's 10 they want, not eight. And until Ottawa is secure -- which will likely demand some intervention from Tom Wright or the CFL board -- there is no way to expand to the east coast, which is what the current sponsors and advertisers, particularly Molson, want.
In today's frenetic sports world, where marketing and brand placement and predictable broadcast times are as important as the very product itself, the CFL cannot afford to go much longer with an odd number of teams. The schedule is simply too out of whack. And when the live gate matters so much to the bottom line, no team really wants to have those two bye-weekends every season.
So 10 is where it has to be, but it can't be 10 until the nine are in good shape. Ottawa needs very close monitoring. The league also needs to resolve Wright's situation (and we're strongly in favour of him staying), and its unbalanced local-to-central revenue stream. Right now, the head office accounts for only about 10 per cent of a franchise's income. It's no wonder there are so many renegades (small r) in the league.
Where's the league's hammer? In the NFL, the percentage is more like 80 per cent, so when the league office does something, asks something, or demands something, it gets listened to. Big time.
One of the knocks against Wright is that while league revenues have gone up, the percentage of league contributions to individual franchise costs has gone up only marginally, if at all. A portion of this imbalance will be rectified in the next TV contract. There will be more bidders, with thicker wallets. With Bob Young's MRX company operating the league's web site, individual game-streaming and a number of other major broadcast/web concepts will have to be provided, and paid for, by the rights holders.
That side of the business has unlimited potential. And so does the league itself. But while they're star-gazing, they've got to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. Starting in Ottawa.