Former CFL commissioner Larry Smith: $150 million ‘it’s a reasonable ask’

Former CFL commish Larry Smith has a unique perspective on the current coronavirus crisis the league is trying to work through.

Smith was the eighth commissioner of the CFL, a post held from 1992 to 1997 and he’s currently the Conservative Senate leader. He’s kept track from afar of Randy Ambrosie’s plea for $150 million in federal financial aid due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The CFL franchise cost to operate is somewhere between $25 to $30 million per year, multiply that by nine it is about $250 million to fund each of the clubs on a yearly basis, that would be my estimate. So if you’re asking for $150 million, it’s a reasonable ask,” Smith said on CTV Ottawa.

“There’s a problem with optics. The challenge is when you have a sports league ask for any form of support or bailout, it makes it very, very difficult. It has to be strings attached and you would think that there would be some form of a repayment and that wasn’t mentioned.”

The 69-year-old Smith oversaw the CFL’s attempt to expand and put franchises in the United States, which had five teams actually play football, but after three years the experiment ended – the Baltimore Stallions relocated to Montreal under Smith’s watch. Meanwhile, four of the eight Canadian based franchises were “failing” as he put it at that time.

“Having lived five years of my life as commissioner, I was in a situation where the league was going to fold kind of every day. It was a tough experience, I’m glad that we got through it,” Smith said.

“When you look at it today, the ownership structure of the league, whether it’s the community owned teams or individual owners or major corporations, there’s a great group of people in there that have financial strength. The issue is how do you figure to get yourself out of it.”

The Hudson, Quebec native knows the economic model for the CFL is much different than the NFL. As of February 2019, each NFL franchise receives $255 million annually from the league’s TV contracts. Smith believes the CFL’s TV money is in the $5 to $6 million range per team.

“You have another $20 million that you have to generate through your season tickets, sponsorships and concessions. In Saskatchewan it’s doable, but when you get into other larger markets which have more competition it is difficult,” Smith said.

“Can the league save itself? Well they may need some help, but if you need help you’re going to have to have some form of a payment schedule. And, in fairness to the commissioner, he may have already discussed that, but it may not have been picked up in the press.”

Smith played collegiately for Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec and he was picked first overall in the 1972 CFL draft by the Alouettes, playing all nine seasons in La Belle province. He amassed 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.

“As a young Canadian my dream was to be a running back on the Montreal Alouettes and I lived my dream,” Smith said.

“The league has tremendous resiliency. The value of the CFL to Canada is it is a sports institution, it gives young men and now women the opportunity to aspire to something.”