A FAN’S NOTES
Third and Long as Usual
It’s Canada Week at Sports Illustrated’s National Football League guru Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback blog. The Canadian Football League likely hasn’t enjoyed this kind of coverage south of 49 since the magazine put Montreal Alouettes QB Vince Ferragamo on the cover way, way back in 1981. The story wasn’t about our three down game so much as the Los Angeles Rams star jumping leagues.
Our professional football league resembles every other Canadian monopoly: it is ancient by New World standards, inept, complacent, laughable and, from time to time, shockingly on the ball. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
If you’re not familiar with CFL ball, an abridged and subjective history of the Montreal Alouettes pretty much explains the quirkiness and seat-of-the-pants nature of our entire beloved, semi-national loop. There is a long tradition of football in Montreal and some folk maintain that North America’s take on rugger was invented by students at McGill University in the mid 19th century. The new sport’s first ever game may have been those innovators against like-minded fellows from Harvard. The Als were not Montreal’s first professional franchise, nor its only one, but they have survived and risen from the dead at least once more often than Jesus.
The Alouettes (English translation: Skylarks, always abbreviated to Larks in Anglophone newspaper sports headlines) were born after World War II, 1946. Those were the days when sport mirrored the natural progress of the seasons and its economics were fundamentally grounded in a reasonable reality. The team was as much a part of the city’s fall fabric as the reddening maple leaves on the slopes of Mount Royal. The players were as revered or scorned as much as any skater for the Montreal Canadiens. There was competition too: first from the Montreal Beavers of the Continental League in the late 60s and then the NFL’s encroaching ownership of Sunday afternoons on cable TV.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date when the City of Montreal became delusional. Perhaps it was when Queen Elizabeth II presided over the inauguration of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Perhaps it was sometime during the year of the country’s centennial when the island City built more islands in the stream to host Expo ’67. It may’ve been the securing of Canada’s first major league baseball franchise which first took to the diamond in 1969. There was of course the successful bid to host the Olympic Games during the summer of 1976. Around this time, the City registered the name Olympiques, the proposed handle of a dreamed of NFL franchise because the CFL was a bit too small time, a bit too quaint for a world class metropolis. The Als themselves became delusional in 1981, no ifs, ands or buts.
The franchise was now owned by a ‘colourful businessman,’ a euphemism for ‘highly leveraged sharpie.’ The team handed Vince Ferragamo a contract for half a million dollars, unheard of money even by then current NFL standards. They played home games in the immense and still unfinished Olympic Stadium erected for the ’76 games. The team went 3-13; no paying customers went. (But God bless the CFL, the Als actually made the playoffs.) The Als crapped out and ceased operations.
The league’s hole in Canada’s second largest market was plugged by the newly minted Montreal Concordes. They. Were. Awful. Dreadful despite having Nebraska Cornhusker legend Turner Gill under centre. The Concordes re-branded themselves as the Alouettes and promptly ceased operations about 24 hours before the start of the CFL’s 1987 season. (I would love to have a beer with the league’s schedule maker from that era.)
Next it was the league’s turn to become delusional. Displaying the tragic, ‘vaulting ambition’ of Macbeth, the CFL orchestrated an aggressive expansion into secondary American markets like Shreveport, Sacramento, Memphis and Las Vegas. Like every single Darwin Awards exploit, it did not end well. And so as their fellow US franchises crashed and burned the 1995 Grey Cup champion Baltimore Stallions and lone survivor of the botched American invasion relocated to Montreal to be reborn as the… Alouettes.
The brain-trust of the third incarnation of the Als was savvy. The team not only promoted itself (as it will), but began promoting the game to the grassroots Francophone majority in the province of Quebec, effectively negating the perception of football as an Anglo-only sport. Some of the bait was subtle: the league’s CFL logo on the collars of the Als jerseys was rendered as the French acronym: LCF. The club reached out to women with ‘Football 101’ courses. And then came the happy accident, serendipity, the miracle of Bono. A U2 concert at Olympic Stadium conflicted with an Als home playoff date. The team shifted the game to an intimate stadium located, fittingly, on the McGill University campus. The combination of a winning team and a tough ticket was a sports marketer’s wet dream.
The Als, playing out of a gussied up and expanded university facility, are now considered one of the CFL’s model franchises. Other teams around the country will play this season in new or refurbished stadiums. There’s an expansion team in Ottawa, albeit the third go-round in the capital. There is talk of a future club somewhere in the Maritimes or perhaps even Quebec City. The three down game is now critical live content for one of Canada’s cable sports channels and worth overpaying for; this fact made for some tense collective bargaining sessions during the spring as both the players and the league realized there was some actual cash money on the table – a new experience for each party. While the calendar doesn’t always cooperate, the league has managed to co-brand our nation’s July 1st Canada Day (Dominion Day if you’re of a certain age) celebrations by kicking off its season on the last weekend of June. Labour Day in this country is all about football, corporate sponsored ‘Classics.’ The Grey Cup championship, going on 102, has evolved from four quarters of football to a week-long festival in the host city.