An affair of the heart: Regina’s Grey Cup bash defies the doomsayers

Abstract:

Volunteer workers have been toiling for two years to set up a Grey Cup party in Regina, which is the smallest Canadian Football League city in the country. Expansion of the league, economic issues and football rules are discussed.

Full Text:

Some 3,000 volunteers have been working as long as two years to pull it off–a Grey Cup party in the smallest CFL city to rival any bash that came before. Last week, workmen in Regina were raising the Taylor Field scoreboard to accommodate more seating, and–after a chill autumn storm blew in–heating and drying the snow-covered artificial turf so that painters could apply sponsors’ logos. Other workers closed off a downtown street and began erecting a massive tent–big enough to hold nearly 800 Grey Cup-week celebrants at a time. Across town, store owners painted football players on their windows and residents strung their homes with green and white lights–the colors of their beloved Saskatchewan Roughriders. And although the home team did not even make the playoffs this year, Grey Cup organizers had sold more than 52,000 tickets for the Nov. 19 game by late last week, just 2,000 short of their goal. “We’re smaller than cities that usually host it,” observes Matthew Gafencu, a Grade 12 student and a tackle with Balfour Collegiate, who played in the city high-school championships at Taylor Field last week. “But there’s a lot of spirit here. I think it will be one of the best Grey Cups ever. Taylor Field will just be rockin’.”

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Of course, Regina is the land of CFL true believers, where the Roughriders’ last home game against the Calgary Stampeders drew a record 55,438 fans–equivalent to almost a third of the city’s population. Regina in the throes of Grey Cup fever is a world apart from the troubles plaguing the CFL, from the voices of doom who say its much-ballyhooed expansion to the United States–if not the league itself–is in imminent danger. Last week, there were reports that the NFL’s Cleveland Browns were heading for Baltimore, likely squeezing out the CFL’s Baltimore Stallions, the American expansion team that has proven most successful on the field and at the ticket office. The other four American teams played to paltry crowds this year–before as few as 5,289 lonely souls at Birmingham’s 75,000-seat Legion Field. Some of the American owners are now calling for rule changes–a switch to U.S.-style four downs instead of the CFL’s three, perhaps, or a hike in the CFL’s $2.5-million-a-team salary cap to allow them to woo marquee players. Other owners are talking of moving their teams to new cities.

Some Canadian teams are struggling, too. In fact, the league’s bottom line is dripping red ink–an internal document estimated CFL teams’ losses this year could go as high as $30 million.League commissioner Larry Smith, the architect of expansion, argues that it has succeeded in revitalizing Canadian teams and in attracting strong Canadian owners. In the United States, though, “I think it’s too early to say whether expansion will work,” Smith insists. In the short term, league officials say they hope to trim costs and to achieve some sorely needed stability among American franchises. In the longer term, they still hope to win a major U.S. TV contract. But the CFL also has a fall-back plan: retrenching to an all-Canadian league. What the CFL will not yet consider is American-style rules. “There is a feeling,” says the league’s chief operating officer, Jeff Giles, “that changing the name or the rules would destroy the base of the business–which is Canadian football.”

Certainly, there seems little tolerance for such changes in the CFL’s heartland. The day before the high-school championship in Regina last week, Gafencu and teammate Jon Illerbrun talked of their hopes of playing university or college ball, and then of going on to the CFL–Illerbrun to follow in the footsteps of his father, Bryan, who played for Saskatchewan from 1978 to 1983 and again from 1986 to 1989. Both teens feel strongly that the league should retain its Canadian character, including a maximum quota of so-called import players. “It’s a Canadian game and you have to keep Canadians in it,” insists Illerbrun. “It’s still our league,” adds Gafencu. “We let the Americans play in our league, but they have to play by our rules.”

When Gafencu and Illerbrun played on Taylor Field last week, losing narrowly to Robert Usher Collegiate 11-8, the stadium looked positively cavernous. Its seating capacity has been doubled to just over 54,000, with scaffolding-like temporary seats erected behind the end zones. It was a bone-chilling -131 C the night of the high-school final. Grey Cup workers have put up plastic sheeting to try to minimize the wind chill in the concourse areas beneath the permanent seats, and they are piping in heat. But they are also hoping that is all unnecessary. Jack Ritenburg, assistant vice-president of Grey Cup ’95, has examined weather records for the past 12 years and is projecting that, on the big day, the temperature will be 21 C with winds from the south southeast at just 19 km/h.

Some organizers, like the committee’s president Bob Ellard, have been volunteering since December, 1993, arranging everything from the expansion of Taylor Field to ticket sales and accommodation plans. With hotel rooms booked, they have set up a temporary RV park and made arrangements to billet visitors in private homes. They have also planned a parade, cabarets, parties, pancake breakfasts and gala dinners. Almost everyone, from bartenders to parking lot attendants, will be a volunteer. “This is the biggest sporting event ever to hit this province,” Ellard says. “Unless you lived here, you’d have trouble understanding it, but this is a big deal here.”

Football, of course, is a big deal in Saskatchewan all year long. The Roughriders have been around for more than eight decades. And with no other major professional sports franchise in the province, “we don’t have another competing product,” observes the team’s general manager, Alan Ford. “It’s something that the people of Saskatchewan are very proud of and don’t want to lose.” The team will come close to breaking even on its operations this year, officials say–and stands to make more than a million dollars from Grey Cup activities. Meanwhile, the western Riders drew an average of 28,500 people to their games, an all-time record. They regularly lured fans from Prince Albert, four hours to the north, and occasionally from as far as Red Deer, Alta., where Doug Stapleton, a 37-year-old RCMP officer, arranges an 81/2-hour bus trip to a Roughrider game once a year. Support for the Riders is almost a responsibility to Saskatchewanians. “You’re born with it,” says Stapleton, who left Moose Jaw, Sask., in 1978. “It’s sort of like family,” adds Jackie Ruznisky of Prince Albert. “And you’re always there for family. I can get mad if they lose and criticize the coach–but, boy, don’t you come here from Calgary and tell me what’s wrong with my team.”

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Stapleton and Ruznisky are both Rider Reps, two of some 300 volunteers spread throughout Saskatchewan and dotted in other provinces, representing the team, holding lunches and selling tickets and paraphernalia–ensuring the community-owned team’s survival even in the years when on-field heroics did not generate sufficient ticket sales. Said Murray Measner, the Regina-based chairman of the Rider Reps: “There have been years when we’ve gone door-to-door selling single-game tickets.” With that kind of commitment, there seems little doubt that the Riders will remain one of the CFL’s bedrock franchises. Of course, there are people elsewhere who do not think the CFL itself will survive, at least not in its current form. There are even some who would like to see the NFL expand into Canada. But not many of them can be found in Regina, not amid the celebration this week leading up to Grey Cup day–maybe not ever.

THE CFL SCOREBOARD

Average attendance at Canadian games in the 1995 regular season: 24,407 (up more than seven per cent over 1994)

Average attendance at American games: 18,305 (down more than 19 per cent for the two teams that played in the same city in both 1994 and 1995–Baltimore and Shreveport, La.)

Record in regular-season games between American and Canadian teams this year: Americans, 32 wins; Canadians, 20

U.S. teams that might switch cities or fold next year: Baltimore, Shreveport, Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn.

Average player salary in the CFL:$46,800

In the National Football League:$926,100

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