Stephen Brunt shares harsh realities of David Braley: ‘I will speak honestly of the dead’

Screengrab courtesy: Sportsnet

Respected Canadian sports journalist Stephen Brunt didn’t want to disrespect the late David Braley and what he meant to the CFL, however, he felt compelled to share realities of his time in the league.

Brunt is a Hamilton native just like Braley and he’s been a reporter since graduating from the University of Western Ontario in 1982. The 61-year-old has been in the profession since before Braley purchased his first team — the Hamilton Tiger-Cats — in 1989.

“It’s absolutely true that if he had not put his own money into Hamilton, Toronto and B.C. at various times — some of them two at once — there wasn’t anybody else out there willing to do it,” Brunt told Sportsnet 960 The Fan in Calgary. “All or some of those teams would have gone under and the league probably would have gone under. That part is true.”

“It’s worth considering whether those teams were better after his stewardship than they were before. Some of them were on death’s doorstep, absolutely, but he ran teams into the ground too. That’s because he didn’t spend any money on marketing and he didn’t spend any money on modern machineries of ticket-selling. He didn’t care about that stuff.”

The Lions led the CFL in attendance through much of the 1980s, often averaging more than 40,000 fans per game. Crowd sizes fell dramatically prior to Braley’s purchase of the team and bottomed out at 16,216 in 1998. Ticket sales recovered during the first half of the owner’s tenure, peaking at 34,082 in 2008.

“The Argos that he sold to Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment were absolutely dead in the water. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats that he handed over to community ownership were on their way to bankruptcy.”

“And the B.C. Lions — he held them for a long time — during the early years of his tenure when Bobby Ackles was alive and did a lot of outreach in the community, very well respected football guy and community guy, they thrived,” Brunt said.

“But talk to anybody in Vancouver now about where the B.C. Lions are in the local landscape and they’re third. There’s not four teams there unless you add the Seattle Seahawks in, which you probably should. They are way behind the Canucks, they’re behind the Whitecaps and their audience is old traditional CFL fans, it’s the ‘remember when’ crowd.”

The Lions averaged 17,803 fans per game in 2019, the lowest figure since 1998. The team has had little use for BC Place’s upper bowl, often covering the seats for games. The Whitecaps don’t open the upper bowl either, averaging 21,143 fans per game over the past five seasons.

“They’ve lost the conversation in Vancouver, in part that’s because (Braley) didn’t invest the money and put money into the kind of things that keep a team out front and centre and market the stars and market the product,” Brunt said.

“He liked hosting Grey Cups. He hosted at one point four Grey Cups in six years between two of his teams. Grey Cups are very lucrative — this isn’t a charity we’re talking about here, he did find a way to make it a cash positive experience in a lot of ways.”

This is technically untrue. Braley hosted four total Grey Cups in Vancouver with two (2011, 2014) coming in relatively quick succession. Toronto was awarded one Grey Cup during Braley’s ownership of the Argos in 2012, though the team didn’t host the game again until 2016 — one year after Braley sold the team. There has been speculation that Braley received some of the revenue from the 2016 Grey Cup, though this remains unconfirmed.

“He wielded a ton of power in the league because he was the richest guy in the league. He liked to tell people he was the richest guy in the league. In a lot of ways, he held the league back. He was not a progressive force in the league.”

“He had a $10 haircut and he walked around in a beat up old wind breaker. He liked to be able to walk out on the factory floor and be one of the guys with his employees. But the flip side of him was that if you got him behind closed doors in a boardroom, he was the first guy to tell you how much money he had,” Brunt said.

“There’s a famous story, and this one I know is true. When Paul Tagliabue, the then-NFL commissioner, came up here to meet the CFL governors, Braley leaned back and said to Paul Tagliabue, ‘I would like you to know, Mr. Tagliabue, that I’m a man of considerable wealth.’ He put that on the table all the time.”

“He reveled in being the big frog in that very small pond, throwing his weight around and not always in the greater interest of the league. He famously made sure that he got his name on the football during that time, he cared about stuff like that.”

Braley’s legacy is a complicated one, but one things remains undeniable: without David Braley, the CFL would likely not exist today.

“He’s a saviour, that’s unequivocally true. Without his money there is no league. So maybe it’s a moot point criticizing around the edges. The truth is he saved the league, but on other levels he did not help the league at all. He wanted to keep the TV blackout going and he fought for it.”

“I shouldn’t complain about the guy looking out for himself. Consider the Grey Cup, which is the only thing in the CFL that consistently makes money. They held the centennial Grey Cup in Toronto and they got the federal government — David was a senator at that point — to underwrite the 100th Grey Cup as a cultural event in Toronto. And then they staged a Grey Cup that looked like every other Grey Cup. The profits went to the Toronto Argonauts to David Braley,” Brunt said.

“I’m resisting casting him neither as a hero or a villain because pretty much everybody is somewhere in between. He wasn’t 100 percent a hero and he wasn’t 100 percent a villain in terms of the CFL. As significant a figure as there has been in the CFL in the last 30 years, but not all of that is good.”