Former CFL commissioner and Montreal Alouettes president Larry Smith has been following the Montreal Alouettes ownership situation very closely.
“You have to understand I haven’t been part of that operation since 2010. Having been the former commissioner of the CFL and having lived through franchises failing, a track record starts and basically once great performance turns into poor performance and you start getting fewer and fewer numbers at the stadium your brand value starts to decline. Once you incur more debt with losses your brand value starts to decline,” Smith said on TSN 690 radio in Montreal.
“The Wetenhall family has done a fantastic job over time to get it to where it was at the end of 2010-2011, but since that time it’s slipped. Unfortunately, did they wait too long to try to get out of the investment? Those are all things that the second down or third down quarterbacks can figure out. Obviously it’s got to a point where the brand value has disintegrated to a point where people who are out there become sharks in the water and would try to acquire the asset for a highly diminished price because of the loss of brand value.”
Smith was the eighth commissioner of the CFL, a post he held from 1992 to 1997. He oversaw the league’s attempt to expand and put franchises in the United States, which saw five teams actually play football, but after three years the experiment ended – the Baltimore Stallions relocated to Montreal under Smith’s watch.
“The league is in a much better shape than it was when I was commissioner. In the time that I was there we didn’t have the power because half of our Canadian franchises were in peril,” Smith said.
“Now you have a much stronger group with the Regina’s of the world, the Calgary’s, the B.C. Lions, Winnipeg and Toronto, they’re not doing well on the field, but they have a huge organization behind them, and Ottawa has done a great job, so you have much more strength than you did.”
There has been plenty of reporting about the league assuming control of the Alouettes and running the franchise until a new ownership group goes through the entire sale process. Smith admitted he doesn’t have any knowledge whether Robert Wetenhall has transferred the team to the league, but understands why it’s possible.
“If the league is propping the franchise up at this particular time, that is a safety net to make sure that football is played. The owners can band together and make a decision that if they want to prop up the club for a period of time and try to polish it up so they can sell it later, that’s an option for them. Hopefully the right steps can be taken so that asset can find a new owner,” Smith said.
“The most important thing that the CFL and the commissioner can do is really assess the economic viability of that group and make a determination on proof demonstrated in terms of the quality and the competency of that particular group to be able to cash flow and make a solid commitment to rebuild the franchise.”
Smith stated “the league has always had the issue of survivability, but it’s always survived despite itself in many situations.” The 67-year-old Hudson, Quebec native knows the economic model for the CFL is much different than the NFL, estimating the TV revenue generated by the pro league south of the border is in excess of $2 billion.
“In Canada we have a great relationship with TSN and they’ve done a fantastic job of assisting the league in its growth, but we don’t have the number of television sets. If we have 14-15 million television sets and there’s 35-36 million people it gives you an idea of the economy of scale. As a result we don’t have the same economic model as they do in the United States,” Smith said.
“And so you have to be very prudent when you’re running a CFL team to do more with less, that’s how the league has survived and prospered at certain times, but what happens is you have an up and down cycle that occurs every once in a while. It’s still in an up cycle but clearly having problems with franchises as important as Montreal has got to be a concern to the commissioner.”
Smith played collegiately for Bishop’s University in Montreal and he was picked first overall in the 1972 CFL draft by the Alouettes, playing all nine seasons in La Belle province, amassing 1,646 rushing yards and 238 receptions for 2770 yards with 26 total touchdowns. Smith won two Grey Cups including The Ice Bowl in 1977 at Olympic Stadium.
“I bleed Montreal Alouettes through and through my body,” Smith said.
The Canadian senator would be open to a potential position with the new Alouettes ownership group.
“I’d have to consider anything at the particular time based on the type of ownership and the type of request,” Smith said, “but I’d never say yes at this point, never say no.”