September 17, 2010
Dave Naylor had a very interesting piece in The Globe and Mail yesterday looking at the discussion around the formula for the expansion draft that will provide Ottawa with players for their 2013 return to the CFL. According to Naylor, a vote on the formula was originally set for Thursday's board of governors meeting, but has been postponed until the week of this year's Grey Cup, and several teams are complaining about the proposed plan being too generous.
It's understandable that there are heightened tensions around this issue, as expansion drafts obviously have a significant impact on both the new franchise and the existing teams. Existing teams can usually protect some players, but still lose talented guys they have invested considerable time and money in developing. The new franchise may well have its future partly decided by what happens in the expansion draft, as it's far easier to have a financially stable operation if your team's winning. Winning teams create excitement and draw in fans; losing ones may get a few fans stopping by to check out the new team at first, but it's tough to get enough consistent support to keep a team going if your on-field results aren't promising.
Jeff Hunt (pictured at left above with CFL commissioner Mark Cohon during the official expansion announcement in 2008), who's leading the Ottawa ownership group, appears to understand how vital early on-field success is for new professional sports franchises. Here's what he told Naylor:
"‘I think the CFL, to a team, realize how vital it is we start out strong,' said Jeff Hunt, head of the Ottawa ownership group. "No matter what else we do - full, brand new stadium, new revitalized site, strong local ownership - everyone's credibility will be measured by the performance on the field. A great first season can almost single-handily wipe out 20-plus years of poor performance and change the way the city, and country, feel about Ottawa football. What an opportunity.'"
Unfortunately, most expansion drafts have erred on the side of keeping the existing teams happy rather than providing a fair start for the new ones. Expansion draft rules are determined by franchise votes, and it's more politically viable for league officials to please a large group of existing teams than to do what's right for the one or two new teams out there. In the long term, though, this can be short-sighted; weak league members often lead to financial issues, contraction or relocation, which can damage the whole league.
The last CFL expansion draft is an example of this. When Ottawa came back in 2002, each team was allowed to protect two quarterbacks, forcing the Renegades to take third-stringers at best. Each team could also protect nine of their 10 American players, which produced slim pickings on that front. There were more Canadians available, with each team protecting seven, but the league didn't have a ton of Canadian depth at that point in time and the Renegades wound up with mostly roster-fillers instead of true talent. The results of the league's strict protectionism were seen on the field; the Renegades won four, seven, five and seven games in their four seasons, but never made the playoffs. The expansion draft is far from the only reason they folded, as there were severe mismanagement, ownership and stadium issues at play as well, but it certainly didn't help.
The new proposed rules are more promising. According to Naylor, each team would only be able to protect one active quarterback, which means the new Ottawa franchise would be able to start with someone else's backup instead of a third-stringer. There are a lot of talented backups out there who might be able to lead a team; Steven Jyles, Adrian McPherson, Quinton Porter and Travis Lulay come to mind immediately. Each team would also have to leave one regular offensive lineman, receiver and defensive back unprotected. The new franchise would wind up with three active quarterbacks, two active kickers, 16 Canadians, 16 Americans and 11 players taken from existing negotiation lists. In total, each current CFL team could lose one quarterback or kicker (from its active roster or negotiation list), two Americans and two Canadians, plus an additional player off the negotiation list. That will hurt teams in the short run, but it seems reasonably fair; it's not going to make Ottawa an instant Grey Cup contender, but they should be able to put up a fight out of the gate.
In my mind, it's certainly better for the league in the long run to make Ottawa instantly competitive. There are serious potential problems lurking if new franchises aren't able to put out a good on-field product within their first couple of years. One key example from another sport that will be familiar to many Canadians is the 1995 NBA expansion draft, which was designed to fill the rosters of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. The new teams were so hamstrung by the draft's rules that only a few notable players were available, though; each existing team could protect eight players, which is quite significant in a league where only five men play at any given time. Furthermore, the new teams were only allowed to take one unprotected player from each existing team. That meant Toronto and Vancouver were stuck taking mostly veterans on the downslope of their career, many of whom weren't all that good in the first place. The results were about what you'd expect; Toronto went 21-61 in their first season, while the Grizzlies were an atrocious 15-67 and set an NBA record (later tied by Denver) with 23 straight losses in a single season.
The strict rules of the expansion draft weren't the only factor in the early struggles of the Raptors and Grizzlies: it was also crucial that they were locked out of the first five picks of the rookie draft in their inaugural season, forcing the Grizzlies to select Bryant "Big Country" Reeves (pictured at right trying to hold hands with Vlade Divac instead of guarding him) instead of someone who could actually play basketball. The five players taken before him? Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Antonio McDyess and Joe Smith, all of whom were still in the league last season and have had decent careers, while Reeves crashed out of the league due to injury in 2001-02. The restrictions the NBA applied in both the expansion draft and the rookie draft prevented both the Raptors and Grizzlies from putting together a decent on-court product for several years.
Toronto managed to survive four years of struggles and put together a team that made the playoffs in 1999. Vancouver was not so lucky. Mismanagement meant the team never improved its expansion draft roster too much, and they finished last again in 1997-98. They were especially bad in the lockout-shortened season in 1998-99, winning only eight of their 50 games. They improved to 22-60 in 1999-2000 and actually finished ahead of the L.A. Clippers (15-67) and Chicago Bulls (17-65), but were still last in their division. In 2000-01, they were only the fourth-worst team in the NBA, but were still last in the Midwest Division with a 23-59 record. Steve Francis' decision to hold out and force a trade certainly didn't help, and Michael Heisley moved the team to Memphis after the season. I was in the Vancouver area for the Grizzlies' entire history, and I'm quite convinced they failed not because of a lack of interest in basketball or the NBA (many Vancouverites were huge Seattle Supersonics fans before the Grizzlies came and after they left), but rather because of an awful team. Much of the blame for that awful roster can be laid at the feet of the league for the way they handled the expansion and rookie drafts.
In most leagues, the successful new teams are the ones that win reasonably quickly, while the failures are the franchises that can never put a good on-field product out there. All the snappy marketing, new stadiums and media coverage in the world doesn't produce lasting interest and financial stability without on-field success. The existing CFL teams need to understand that and put rules in place that will enable Ottawa to be successful from the start, even if they hurt other teams in the short term. The big picture is the good of the league, and that requires healthy franchises in each city. It's awfully tough to be a healthy franchise without winning, and that's the lesson the CFL should learn from the Grizzlies' failure.