‘He loved his three-down football, but he was also a businessman’: Braley family concerned, but won’t stand in the way of XFL talks

Photo courtesy: McMaster/Ron Scheffler

When the CFL announced plans to work together with the XFL to identify opportunities to innovate and grow the game of football, Matt Sekeres had the same initial reaction as many CFL fans.

“My first thought when I heard of the XFL merger or association or whatever it’s going to be was David Braley must be rolling over in his grave,” he said on the Sekeres and Price Show Thursday.

“I thought that because anytime the CFL was in financial trouble, David and his wallet were there to save the day.”

The late owner of the B.C. Lions, who passed away in October, began his involvement with the CFL in 1989 as owner of his hometown Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He later purchased the financially-strapped Leos prior to the 1997 season and owned the Toronto Argonauts from 2010 to 2015. Braley also notoriously loaned money to other struggling franchises to keep the league afloat in challenging times.

With the league facing its latest crisis and looking to the XFL for help, Sekeres reached out to David’s son Rob Braley to see how the family of the multiple-time CFL saviour was reacting to the situation.

“Rob Braley said this to me when I asked him about the XFL association, ‘He loved his three-down football, but he was also a businessman,'” Sekeres said.

“Rob made it clear that his family is not standing in the way of commissioner Randy Ambrosie and the CFL governors pursuing some form of relationship with the XFL.”

While the family is open to talks, they also share many of the same concerns their father would if he were still alive.

“He said he hopes whatever changes come to the Canadian game would be minor and he added that he believes that is what his father would have wanted had his father gone along with this,” Sekeres continued.

“And he also said that his dad was not the biggest fan of U.S. expansion the first time around.”

The most recent incarnation of the XFL lasted just five games before the COVID-19 pandemic put their season on hold, which led to Vince McMahon filing for bankruptcy and selling. RedBird Capital, Dwayne Johnson, and Dany Garcia were selected as the winning bidders. It cost $15 million and the goal is to make the XFL a stable league in the future, which could include an agreement with the CFL.

According to reports, the CFL collectively lost between $60 and $80 million not playing last season. Without an infusion of cash, either from the government, RedBird Capital, or the passing of single-game sports betting in Canada, the league would take another large financial hit regardless of what happens in 2021.

Despite those losses, Rob Braley believes it is the XFL that has the most to gain from a potential partnership.

“Rob really thought the XFL had more to gain here given that the league is a two-time failure, has no coaches or players, and the other thing he added is they have very few lease agreements with stadiums,” Sekeres noted.

During his induction speech at the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2012, David Braley spoke of how proud he was going from 8,000 fans in the stands at his first game as Lions owner to averaging 35,000 at the highest point of his tenure.

Those numbers have since dwindled considerably and two of the major markets he funded, Vancouver and Toronto, are seen as those most in need of an XFL marketing bump. Braley had been in the process of selling the Lions for almost a decade prior to his death, but couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger.

“As Rob said to me today, ‘Matt, he would have had trouble letting it go,'” Sekeres explained. “We joked that his hand would have been trembling if he ever had to sign David Braley on papers that put the B.C. Lions in somebody else’s hands.”

His estate now controls the team until a sale takes place — something unlikely to happen in the immediate future due to revenue losses and XFL uncertainty.

Braley willed enough money to the team upon his death to get them through three normal season without new ownership, though the current pandemic situation has reduced that pool. Still, his son insists that the family is committed to finding stable ownership in the mold of his father no matter what.

“He told me, ‘The team is not going to die on our watch, I love that team as much as he did and we’ll find it a new home,'” Sekeres finished.

One way or another, the family of the man who financed the CFL to success will find the league a new backer.