These were the opening night blues:
In Toronto, Baltimore's nameless expansion team, quarterbacked by a former Argonaut, drew only 13,101 to an echoing SkyDome.
In Ottawa, the Rough Riders drew only 18,134 for the return of the despised Gliebermans, Bernie and Lonie, who bailed out of Canada last February to launch the expansion Shreveport Pirates. In Sacramento, a "crowd" of 14,816 turned out to see the Canadian Football League's first regular-season game between two U.S. teams.
By now, everyone should realize how vital the success of Baltimore's no-name franchise is to the American viability of the CFL. This is a league that needs a new approach, a new energy, and the infusion of cash from some future TV contract.
If the CFL sells in Baltimore, other cities -- not to mention other networks -- will become interested. Indeed, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke struck a crucial chord last week when asked about his pitch to bring the 1996 Grey Cup to Baltimore. "We can do for the CFL what we did for the NFL," he said.
In six openers, including last night's game between Hamilton and Edmonton, where they got a crowed in excess of 25,000, the CFL averaged 18,692 in attendance. That is more than 5,000 per game shy of the league's 1993 average.
Baltimore, the second-biggest market in the CFL with a metropolitan population of 2.43 million, drew 28,798 to refurbished Memorial Stadium for an exhibition game two weeks ago. (That made Baltimore a virtual lock to get the '96 Grey Cup.) Team owner Jim Speros says he'll be disappointed if his home opener Saturday night against Doug Flutie and the Calgary Stampeders doesn't draw between 38,000 and 40,000.
In Toronto, the specter of the team with no name and the return of quarterback Tracy Ham wasn't enough to attract a crowd. The Argos were overshadowed by a Pink Floyd concert at nearby Exhibition Stadium that drew some 50,000. Dave Watkins, the team's director of communications, said that with new ownership, the Argos have made "sweeping philosophical changes" to add value to the price of a ticket and to provide better customer service. Watkins also speculated that the crowd count would have been worse without the Baltimore element.
Not everyone agrees that Baltimore is critical to the CFL future, though. Last week an editorial in a Toronto newspaper said the league doesn't need a second-rate city like Baltimore, or a third-rate city like Shreveport, La., for its survival.
But one Canadian owner said recently the CFL has these options: expand further into the United States, or retreat to Canada to become a mom and pop league once again.
The fans who turned out for opening night got their money's worth. Four openers were decided in the final 30 seconds, two on the final play.
Donald Narcisse caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Tom Burgess on the last play of the game to cap the Saskatchewan Roughriders' comeback from a 21-0 deficit to beat Calgary, 22-21, Friday in Regina.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were inside the 10-yard line on the last play against the British Columbia Lions, but quarterback Matt Dunigan was sacked by Angelo Snipes and the Lions hung on for a 24-20 victory.
With 21 seconds left in Sacramento, Gold Miners quarterback David Archer missed a comeback opportunity when he fumbled on the 3-yard line, allowing Las Vegas to escape, 32-26.
Baltimore's 28-20 win in Toronto was sealed in the final 30 seconds when Argos quarterback Mike Kerrigan failed to throw in the end zone on third down from the 7.
Then there was Shreveport's 40-10 loss to Ottawa, where five-year CFL backup Terrence Jones completed only one of 20 passes for 9 yards -- and wasn't pulled by coach Forrest Gregg. In desperate need of help at quarterback, the names that have surfaced in Shreveport include Gino Torretta of Miami, Anthony Dilweg of Duke and Tom Mickey of Baylor.
Pirates running back Gill Fenerty, who played in the NFL, put this spin on the loss: "At least we can say we were less worse than we were last week [in a 24-1 preseason loss to Toronto]."
The Gliebermans are to Ottawa what Bob and Jim Irsay are to Baltimore. Bernie and Lonie Glieberman were controversial owners in Ottawa until last winter, when they pulled up roots and started Shreveport's expansion team. The Roughriders asked the league to bring in Shreveport for its home opener and promoted the game with towels that called it "The War of '94." At the end of the game, fans heaved eggs at Lonie Glieberman, team president.
Ottawa receiver Jock Climie, who played under the Gliebermans, caught three TD passes in the game, then voiced this opinion of the new regime: "It makes a world of difference to me personally. Last year was totally and thoroughly demoralizing. We've got to erase all those demons."
It was a scene right out of Hollywood. When Baltimore coach Don Matthews presented the Toronto game ball to Speros in the locker room, the 35-year-old owner did a split, bounced up, spiked the ball and shouted, "Football is back in Baltimore."
Of Speros' jubilation, Matthews said: "He's made a heart-and-soul commitment, and taken more risk than anyone. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward."
OPENING WEEK CROWDS
Game .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Attendance
Shreveport at Ottawa .. .. .. .. .. .. ... 18,134
Baltimore at Toronto .. .. .. .. .. .. ... 13,101
Calgary at Saskatchewan .. .. .. .. .. ... 23,342
Las Vegas at Sacramento .. .. .. .. .. ... 14,816
Winnipeg at B.C. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... ... 20,069
Hamilton at Edmonton .. .. .. .. .. .. ... 25,687
fTC Totals .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 112,149
Average .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... ... 18,692
1993 CFL average .. .. .. .. .. .. ... ... 24,218