The yin and yang of David Braley: loans, TV blackouts, and secret ownership of the Argos

Photo courtesy: McMaster/Ron Scheffler

The legacy of B.C. Lions’ owner David Braley is a complicated one, as outlined by TSN’s Dave Naylor.

“He was a safety net, somebody who cared passionately about the CFL, somebody who put his money where his mouth is,” Naylor said on TSN 1260 radio in Edmonton. “But he was also a guy who wielded enormous power and was rooted in a very traditional approach to operating the league.”

It’s clear from the lack of marketing in Vancouver that Braley didn’t want to invest heavily in promoting the team. Ticket sales have fallen dramatically in B.C. over the past eleven years, dropping from an average of 34,082 per game in 2008 to 17,803 in 2019.

Photo courtesy: McMaster/Ron Scheffler

“Other than when Bob Ackles ran the Lions in the early 2000s, look at the marketing or creativity around David Braley’s Argonauts or David Braley’s B.C. Lions — not exactly models of, ‘Wow, this is what every team should be doing,'” Naylor said.

Braley also wanted to bring back local blackouts, the practice of removing regional games from television. This was commonly done in the early days of sports broadcasting to try to prevent people from watching the game on TV instead of buying a ticket to see it live.

“His (Braley’s) ideas were rooted more in the 1950s than they were in the 2000-and-teens. He believed that (nationally televised games) kept people home and I think we all understand in today’s day and age, you have to promote your product on television — there’s just no if, and, or but about it. There’s very little evidence that people stay home from games just because they’re on TV, which is why blackouts are basically extinct.”

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One of the ways in which Braley helped the CFL was by cutting cheques for teams who were struggling financially.

“There’s a yin and yang to David Braley,” Naylor said. “He was the guy who would prop up teams. He was the guy who would loan money — he loaned money to basically every team in the league except Edmonton at some point when they were in crisis. The other side of that, it’s not good for a league to be addicted to philanthropy. That’s not a good long term business model.”

One of the ways in which Braley was compensated for helping the league were opportunities to host the Grey Cup, which always turn a profit. On paper, he hosted four in Vancouver and one in Toronto, three of which came in very close succession: Vancouver, 2011; Toronto, 2012; and Vancouver, 2014.

Photo courtesy: TSN

“His philanthropy and his generosity seemed to be rewarded. If you look at it between 2006 and 2015, five of ten Grey Cups were hosted by either Braley’s Argos or Braley’s Lions. We know how the cash registers turn at Grey Cup,” Naylor said.

At first glance, there’s nothing to tie Toronto hosting the 2007 Grey Cup to Braley as he didn’t purchase the team officially until 2010. Behind the scenes, a report indicated that Braley became an unofficial part-owner of the Argonauts in 2003.

“People forget his ownership in the Toronto Argonauts was not known, including to the commissioner of the day, Mark Cohon, until it was revealed in a newspaper story that Matt Sekeres and I wrote. That was one of those shockers,” Naylor said.

“He (Braley) had been leading the charge to find new owners for the Argonauts, so he sits down with Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon and he says, ‘You guys can make this go.’ And they said, ‘We’re not too comfortable with the losses there. I don’t think we can swallow all of that. Why don’t you go in for half of it?’ And Braley says, ‘OK, I’ll be your silent partner and if you guys lose money, I’ll kick in for half.'”

The story shows both sides of Braley — the philanthropist who loved the CFL and the bullish businessman who believed he could do whatever he wanted.

“It illustrated his willingness to float money and stand behind the Canadian Football League. But it also illustrated his sense of entitlement, that you could be a secret financial partner in another team in a nine-team league — and not tell anyone,” Naylor said.

“He was a complicated guy, and somebody who had a lot of extremely positive characteristics for the league, and a few negative ones.”