Opinion: CFL must take immediate action to solve self-inflicted Alouettes ownership crisis

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Historically, bad ownership is almost as much a part of the fabric of the CFL as three downs and the ratio.

Unfortunately, the league has spent far more time trying to change the latter over the past few years than the former.

It seems that the Montreal Alouettes could be the reckoning for that structural failure, as the team descends further into organizational chaos ahead of the 2023 season. The team’s best players, receiver Eugene Lewis and quarterback Trevor Harris, apparently want nothing to do with the franchise’s dysfunction and the tone of the reporting from those on the ground in La Belle Province — led by Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette — has become increasingly dark.

Fans are rightfully hitting the panic button but the Alouettes’ collapse comes as no surprise to those who have been paying attention. The seeds of their destruction were sown four years ago with the very same act that was supposed to save the organization.

When the CFL swooped in to take over the team from former owner Robert Wetenhall in 2019, the Alouettes were in dire straits. In fact, the franchise came much closer to folding than many might realize. However, even with the league’s obvious rush to get the money drain off their collective books, the sale of the team to nonagenarian steel magnate Sid Spiegel and his son-in-law Gary Stern seemed a curious choice.

The Ontario businessmen emerged from out of nowhere late in the process, after several interested local ownership candidates were turned down. Stern was the frontman and a friend of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s Dale Lastman, then chair of the CFL’s board of governors. Spiegel was the one behind the scenes, writing the cheques to let his daughter’s husband live out a fantasy.

Despite their unexpected arrival on the scene, initial reviews of the ownership group were positive. For the most part, people in CFL circles were simply thrilled to have some clarity in Quebec and Stern came across as a guy who could inject some excitement back into the beleaguered franchise. To their credit, there was no public whining when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly made their new investment a financial sinkhole either. They initially provided the stability the league had promised.

As is so often the case, the cracks began to form after a tragedy — albeit not an entirely unexpected one. Spiegel passed away ahead of the 2021 season at 91 years old, having never seen his team play a game. With that, his 75 percent stake in the franchise was quietly put under the control of his estate.

Meanwhile, Stern spent the next two seasons slowly turning his role with the team into a circus act. Year one passed without much of note, but what began as a knack for showmanship and a commendable desire to engage with fans on a more personal level became a sideshow once the minority owner signed up for Twitter.

Guaranteed wins were no longer a marketing gimmick, they were a weekly occurrence. Sellouts were promised and later, when they didn’t occur, demanded. Every move was the one that would crown the Alouettes Grey Cup champions and no critique of the team’s process was ever allowed to go unchallenged.

Amidst the spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and false confidence, two things shone through: Stern’s ego and his complete lack of understanding as to how the league actually operated. The hot takes verged on the delusional and the unpolished look at his management of the franchise hardly inspired confidence.

Despite every red flag imaginable being raised, the majority of fans lapped up Stern’s antics. They found his honesty and accessibility refreshing, one of those “only in the CFL” markers we so often cherish. They laughed and applauded as the businessman fiddled for their amusement, ignoring the Alouettes smouldering in the background.

The Spiegel estate, which is run by two anonymous lawyers, apparently did not take quite as kindly to the ongoing distraction. Stern was forced to take a step back from the team’s day-to-day operations in August, resigning from his spot on the CFL board of governors.

That embarrassing public announcement exposed a flaw in the CFL’s ownership process that had previously gone undiscussed: despite selling the majority of the franchise in one of their three largest markets to a man closing in on a century of life, there had been no clear plan for the team upon Spiegel’s death. Many assumed that Stern would simply take over complete control of the team, but instead he was being asked to sit down and shut up by those with the real power.

The estate’s plans for the team remain a mystery, though all signs point to a sale coming at some point in the future — with a search for Quebec-based investors already underway. In the meantime, the organization is stuck in limbo and Stern’s minority stake continues to cause problems behind the scenes.

After improving the Alouettes’ situation by every conceivable metric last season, president Mario Cecchini was not retained by the club — apparently because his commitment to long-term growth did not fit with Stern’s naive visions of instant profitability. The post remains vacant as the team heads into the most critical portion of the offseason.

Hamstrung by the lack of executive leadership, general manager Danny Maciocia appears to be struggling to retain his pending free agents. The East Division M.O.P. finalist Lewis has already declared his intention to hit free agency, calling the situation in Montreal a “sh*t show” when speaking to TSN. Veteran quarterback Harris appears likely to join him on the open market despite his previous relationship with new head coach Jason Maas, reportedly because Stern doesn’t like him.

While both are undoubtedly trying to leverage the situation to increase their financial earnings, there is no denying that players are concerned by the situation in Montreal. Without the ability to retain an elite quarterback or attract top weapons, the team’s 2023 season could be doomed from the start.

Trouble for big-market CFL teams is a tale as old as time but the league is in a remarkably good spot overall right now. The pandemic failed to kill the Canadiana cockroach, Toronto’s losses remain a rounding error for a disinterested MLSE, and Amar Doman is proving the transformative power of local ownership in Vancouver.

The Alouettes are the single biggest crisis facing the league right now and make no mistake, it requires an immediate fix. For all the sunshine and roses that commissioner Randy Ambrosie loves to cultivate publicly, dead men cannot own football teams for long — even if they’re preferable to social media schmucks.

The longer that ownership uncertainty haunts the Alouettes, the harder it will be for the team to survive in a market where they already face an uphill climb. They need a committed local owner in place as soon as possible, something the league erred by not putting in place in 2019.

The lack of forethought from Ambrosie and the board of governors when it came to Spiegel’s age and their failure to see the potential problems in meeting with Stern four years ago was a grievous mistake. It rests entirely on their shoulders, yet it is sadly a road we’ve travelled a hundred times before.

The league has been intervening to save franchises from rich men with delusions of grandeur for decades. Montreal alone has folded and been resurrected twice. Fans watched the likes of Nelson Skalbania, Charles Bronfman, Jim Speros and the shadowy Michael Gelfand fail before Wetenhall played saviour — only to dance with bankruptcy himself 20 years later.

Stern is just Sherwood Schwarz with fatter thumbs and less wet t-shirt contests. We should be thankful he isn’t pulling a Michael Feterik and pushing for his son to replace Harris under centre.

There may be no perfect solution here — former interested local parties like Eric Lapointe, Clifford Starke and Vincent Guzzo all had potential problems associated with them — but the time for dithering is over. Ambrosie and his bosses must take decisive steps to fix the Alouettes soon or risk irreparable damage.

Let’s just hope they’ve learned from their prior mistakes.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.