Don Landry – Toronto broadcaster/announcer
Rob Vanstone – sports editor, Regina Leader-Post
Andrew Bucholtz – CFL columnist, yahoo.ca
Lori Bursey – president, Friends of the Argonauts
Ravi Ramkissoonsingh – Argo fan and regular contributor to online CFL discussion boards
Tom Trifaux – Director, Canadian Management Centre, and member of Argonauts 1981-85
Donna Green – author and freelance journalist
Malcolm Morrison – business reporter, Canadian Press
Margo Goodhand, Editor-in-Chief, Edmonton Journal
Dan Ferrone – member of Argonauts 1981-93, Canadian Football Hall of Fame member
Mike Hogan – TSN Radio host and Argonauts play-by-play announcer
From a nifty website called CFLDB. Thanks to the deliberately anonymous site creator for the kind words!
The U.S. website Deadspin just posted an interesting read on the CFL’s short-lived appearance on NBC in 1982. That triggered me to post the “lost chapter” of Bouncing Back: my own account of the CFL on NBC. I enjoyed researching and writing the chapter, but it just didn’t fit in the book. Now you can read it below.
Who knew that a labour dispute in the United States would hand the Canadian Football League a once-in-a-generation opportunity to attract new fans in a market 10 times as big as its own?
Who could have guessed that, in an era when most CFL games were high-scoring, hotly contested and rousingly exciting, the opportunity would be blown thanks to four of the dullest, most one-sided games imaginable?
And who would have expected that the Toronto Argonauts – the high-powered, full-of-pizzazz, we’ll-run-the-ball-after-we-catch-it Argonauts – would be the first team to trigger clicks on channel changers from California to Maine?
Of all the weird and unexpected things that have happened in Canadian football over the past century, there may be few as strange or disappointing as the CFL’s brutally bad, and mercifully brief, moment in the North American media spotlight.
In the fall of 1982, three-down, 12-man, 110-yard football was delivered into American living rooms – not on the usual motley collection of independent TV stations way up the UHF dial, but on mighty NBC, the Peacock network. Three weeks later, the CFL slunk back home, soundly defeated.
The possibility that CFL games might be televised on a U.S. network in the event of an NFL players strike first surfaced that July. The Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell, an outstanding columnist and commentator for no less than five decades – and still a reporter at heart – dug into files to remind readers that Canadian football had been shown on U.S. network television three decades earlier.
Faced with the loss of college football’s game of the week to rival ABC, NBC had cut a deal in 1954 with the old Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (commonly called the Big Four, and later to become the East Division of the CFL) to televise 13 Saturday afternoon games. The first game of that contract, on Aug. 28 between the Rough Riders and Argonauts at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, was reported to have been seen by 30 million viewers south of the border. Dunnell wrote that Dan Parker, sports columnist for the now-defunct New York Mirror, had, after watching the game, called on U.S. football to “plagiarize” the CFL’s single-point rule – he hoped that it would decrease the chance of tie games.
NBC’s CFL telecasts ended after the 1954 season, but the Canadian game resurfaced on U.S. television eight years later, albeit with a most unfortunate turn of events. ABC put the league’s 1962 championship game on its popular Wide World of Sports program, only to find host Jim McKay forced to explain that “Grey Cup” was the game’s name, not its description. With viewers at home unable to see much of anything because thick fog blanketed the field in Toronto, the Grey Cup was suspended with less than 10 minutes remaining, to be resumed the following day (by which time ABC had presumably returned to its regularly scheduled programming).
In subsequent years, some CFL games were broadcast in the U.S. on loose assortments of stations not affiliated with the three major networks. Then, in 1981, the fledgling ESPN cable network, taking the world’s first stab at broadcasting sports 24 hours a day, signed a deal to carry 30 regular-season CFL games as well as playoffs and the Grey Cup.
With an NFL players strike looming a year later, CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur touted the possible exposure his league would get if one of the conventional networks were to show its games while the U.S. league was idle. “Gaudaur, completely biased, is sure millions of U.S. lookers would become hooked,” Dunnell wrote in the Star “A more objective assessment is that they would accept it until the real thing – the NFL – returned.” Neither prognostication was to come true.
After NFL player representatives voted unanimously to strike in September, the CFL struck a deal allowing NBC to televise its games during the Sunday afternoon time period normally reserved for the big-bucks American league. NBC, which paid about $900,000 for each NFL game it showed as part of that league’s $2.1-billion TV package with the three networks, agreed to pay $100,000 per CFL game. The money would be split equally between the CFL and ESPN, which under its exclusive deal had the right to assign CFL games to other U.S. outlets.
NBC agreed to keep all CFL games off any affiliate station near the Canada-U.S. border – 14 in total. That condition was required to assuage the domestic TV rights-holder, Carling O’Keefe Breweries, which did not want viewership on CBC and CTV reduced because of Canadians’ innate curiosity about how we are perceived by our neighbours to the south.
Buffalo’s WGR, one of the NBC affiliates prevented from showing games, professed to be unconcerned about its exclusion. “To be honest,” producer Mike DeGeorge told the Globe and Mail, “we could probably throw an old movie on on Sundays and we’d draw as well as CFL games would in western New York. People are just not interested around here. I know a lot of people are laughing because NBC even bothered to pick up the CFL games.”
Still, Gaudaur remained hopeful that the U.S. exposure would benefit the CFL over the long term. “If there’s adequate viewer acceptance, it’s not out of the question that NBC will want to air our games in the future, after the strike,” he said. “Don’t tell him he might as well try to get (U.S. viewers) hooked on birdseed,” retorted Dunnell.
NBC threw big guns at its coverage of Canadian football: play-by-play announcers Don Criqui and Dick Enberg, colour commentators John Brodie and Merlin Olsen, and sideline reporters Gene Washington, Len Dawson, Bob Trumpy and Mike Haffner. Criqui, who grew up in Buffalo, had seen CFL games on TV at a family cottage near Crystal Beach, Ontario, and had called a few games for a small U.S. network in the mid-1960s.
“It’s an exciting game,” he told reporters. “I’ve been watching tapes of several games and I think the fans here are going to be excited by what they see, particularly by the Argonauts. I like the way they run their offence, with all the backs in motion and the emphasis on passing. It should be a good show.”
Haffner, who had played briefly for the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1960s, said U.S. viewers would have their minds blown by the 25-yard end zones and two 50-yard lines. “First time I caught a pass up there, I didn’t know what was happening when I passed the 50 for the second time. My legs tightened up.”
Naturally, NBC planned to emphasize the American college backgrounds of many “import” stars, such as Condredge Holloway from the University of Tennessee and Warren Moon from the University of Washington. “I was watching one tape and I saw Zac Henderson, who was on everyone’s all-American team at Oklahoma,” Criqui said. “I was wondering where he went until I saw him making tackles all over the field.”
In the week leading up to the first NBC games, some American-born players said they were looking forward to the prospect of family members back home finally being able to see them play on network TV. “Knowing that my friends and family will be watching me will give me more incentive to come up with exceptional plays,” said Argos slotback Dave Newman, from Kirksville, Missouri. “It should keep me on more of a high all game. I’ll sure as hell try to get into the end zone.”
If only …
When the first CFL game on a U.S. network in two decades kicked off shortly after 1:30 on September 26, the Argonauts wasted no time delivering their most listless, dispiriting effort of the season. B.C.’s Devon Ford ran the opening kickoff back 82 yards, the Lions scored immediately and led 29-7 at halftime, and the final score of 46-14 actually flattered the woeful Boatmen, who were booed off the field for the only time all year. Many of the 40,250 spectators at Exhibition Stadium might have wished they had the option American viewers had – to change the channel.
Almost to a man, most Argonauts players now say the game’s appearance on NBC had no bearing on their abysmal performance that day. Bob Bronk, however, argues that a change head coach Bob O’Billovich made during pre-game preparations had a negative impact: “Obie normally wouldn’t let any media guys on the field during practice – he was very strict about that. He was anal about it. Then when NBC was here, they had the run of the place. It was a total distraction.”
The second half of that Sunday’s doubleheader on NBC was no more competitive or entertaining than the first. Edmonton trounced Calgary 36-17 in a game that featured just 15 points and 13 first downs combined between the two teams in the first half. The Edmonton Journal’s Ray Turchansky compared it to the last CFL exhibition game played in the United States, a 7-2 snorefest (B.C. over Edmonton) in Everett, Washington, back in 1967.
“The number of U.S. curiosity seekers who hung on – without changing channels – to watch Edmonton blow the game apart in the third quarter … could likely gather comfortably in Norm Kimball’s sauna,” Turchansky wrote.
Video evidence of how NBC covered the games has yet to surface on the collectors’ market, apart from a six-second clip of Don Criqui calling a first-quarter pass from Condredge Holloway to Terry Greer and brief footage of Mike Haffner encouraging Edmonton punter Hank Ilesic to “boom out one of those 87-yarders for us.”
Accounts written for newspapers on both sides of the border indicate that the NBC broadcasters treated the Canadian game with respect, although they couldn’t resist gawking at its substantially larger playing surface. “Godzilla couldn’t throw a sideline pattern here,” Criqui chirped in Toronto, while colour man John Brodie observed that defensive backs looked like they were “covering the whole of Canada.”
In Edmonton, Dick Enberg began the Stamps-Esks game by telling viewers: “We’re as far north as you can go to see a home game in professional sports.” Colour man Merlin Olsen, perhaps better known as Father Murphy on an NBC family drama series of that name, raved that Commonwealth Stadium was the finest football facility he had ever seen.
Echoing the philosophy Forrest Gregg adopted when he became Argo coach in 1979 (an approach also embraced years later by the hopeless Bart Andrus), Olsen advised American viewers to imagine “opening every series at second and 10.”
On NBC’s NFL ’82 studio show in New York, plain-spoken analyst Pete Axthelm told host Len Berman that “no matter how many times NBC shows them, Calgary will never be America’s Team.”
“The announcers played it straight, not disparaging the CFL and keeping NFL comparisons to a minimum,” Willie Schatz wrote approvingly in the next day’s New York Daily News. He noted that, unlike NFL games where sideline interviews were forbidden, CFL players not only answered questions on-camera during the game but “were articulate, informative and refrained from jargon.”
“A mighty pleasant way to pass a Sunday,” Schatz concluded. “What was the name of that other league again?”
New York’s other tabloid, the Post, was less sanguine. “Pro football, Canuck style, made a strange debut on NBC yesterday,” wrote Peter Finney Jr., “and don’t worry if you felt as though you had bitten into a hollow marshmallow.” Finney, who managed to mangle the names of B.C.’s Nick Hebeler (“Hedler”) and Lui Passaglia (“Passaglio”), called the games “a sideshow for real NFL fans” and added, “It all looked so real. But it wasn’t.”
Heading into the doubleheader, NBC officials had said they would consider themselves lucky if the CFL games drew half the usual ratings of Sunday afternoon NFL telecasts. As it turned out, the CFL on NBC beat Major League Baseball on ABC and a rerun of the most recent Super Bowl on CBS, but attracted fewer viewers than Mets, Yankees and Cubs baseball games on local channels in New York and Chicago. And the overall TV audience recorded in the “overnight” ratings for the three largest markets was far smaller than during a typical Sunday in the fall.
The CFL’s bad luck continued the following week, when the game shown on NBC was so one-sided (53-8 for Saskatchewan over the Stampeders) that NBC did something TV programmers almost never do. The network, which will never live down its 1968 decision to cut away from a New York Jets-Oakland Raiders game to show a family movie named Heidi – thereby missing one of the most thrilling finishes in football history – had no qualms about pulling the plug before the Stamps-Roughriders game ended.
“Because all three games have been routs, it’s hard to maintain viewer interest,” NBC official Rick Quackenbush told the Globe and Mail. Ratings reflected the blowout, dropping to 2.5 in New York (against 4.2 for the previous week’s B.C.-Toronto matchup), 1.9 in Chicago (compared with 5.8 a week earlier) and 0.8 in L.A. (vs. 6.7). NBC affiliates started notifying the network that they planned to show their own programming rather than continue broadcasting low-rated CFL games.
“One of these days, we’re going to send down one of our typically close games,” a still-hopeful Jake Gaudaur told the Globe. Unfortunately that never came to pass. After one more game (another rout, this time 30-1 by Edmonton over B.C.), NBC announced it was cancelling its coverage of the CFL in favour of events like a three-month-old gymnastics meet and tape-delayed stock car racing.
Ironically, some of the most exciting CFL games of the 1980s were played right around the time of the NBC experiment – including a 39-35 barn-burner between Toronto and Winnipeg, a 53-39 game between Edmonton and Montreal, and record-setting points explosion (55-48) between Calgary and Hamilton. American viewers missed those and were instead exposed to four games decided by an average margin of 31 points.
While NBC retained an option to show CFL playoff games, the NFL players strike was settled before the CFL season ended. America went back to its weekly NFL fix. The CFL pocketed $200,000 and, with the exception of occasional just-for-laughs references or uncredited game footage on shows like The Simpsons, Modern Family and Homicide: Life on the Streets, has never again been on network television in the United States.