CFL's top franchise may be one without name, even game


Tom Matte sits at a desk in his big office at Memorial Stadium.

That's a surprise right there, if you know Matte -- that with his freewheeling style, he would be desk-bound.

But there he is, Matte the ex-Baltimore Colts halfback and, briefly, quarterback, now vice president-sales for the Baltimore CFL whatever their name is going to be.

Between telephone calls, Matte talks with facilities manager Jobie Waldt and a carpenter named Ulysses about last-minute details for Saturday night's home opener with Calgary.

"Expecting a big crowd?" a visitor asks.

"We're looking for 35,000 to 40,000," Matte says.

That's another surprise -- that this team, in a league comprising players who can't make the NFL (CFL salaries average $45,240; NFL salaries $737,000), could draw 30,000-plus to Memorial Stadium on a July night.

That certainly would have seemed unlikely before June 29, when 28,798 spectators attended the exhibition game here against Winnipeg.

If Baltimore can lure nearly 30,000 for an exhibition game, then surely it will draw more for a league game with Doug Flutie coming in to quarterback the visitors.

Flutie, a one-time Heisman Trophy winner from Boston College and later an NFL reject (even in New England), is the one CFL player whose name means anything in Baltimore.

Flutie has been voted the CFL's Outstanding Player for the past three years. That was not lost on the CFL people who drew up Baltimore's home schedule.

Not that Baltimore needs any artificial help in attaining success in this league.

The truth is, the league's best franchise is the only one with no nickname -- Baltimore.

The CFL, up to now, has considered Edmonton to be its model franchise.

That's partly because the Eskimos are the defending Grey Cup champions, partly because they have made the playoffs 23 straight years, and -- probably the biggest part -- because they are the CFL's top drawing team. Last year they averaged 30,000 in a stadium that holds 60,000.

If all goes well here -- if we don't have a torrential rain storm && Saturday, if the Baltimore team wins some games -- our town could wind up leading the CFL in attendance.

Having been in a football league all those years with the New Yorks and the Chicagos and the Los Angeleses, Baltimore won't do a lot of boasting about out-drawing the Saskatchewans and the Hamiltons, or the new U.S. franchises in Shreveport, Sacramento or Las Vegas.

Our city's entry gives quite a boost to a CFL that wants to expand from 12 teams to 16 or 20 by the year 2000, and wants to gain a foothold in the United States.

The CFL was wise to take us in. The league and the Baltimore team's conspicuous owner, Jim Speros, are feeding off local nostalgia, hatred for the NFL and, now, our being refused the right to use the name -- Colts -- that was made famous here.

The CFL is hardly a rip-roaring success in Canada. Toronto, in losing to Baltimore in its home league opener last week, drew only 13,000 in SkyDome. Sacramento drew 15,000 for its opener in a stadium that holds 22,500.

Montreal doesn't even have a team in the CFL. The Alouettes folded on June 24, 1986.

"Montreal's a funny city," says Marcel Desjardins in the CFL office in Toronto. "Nothing but hockey draws well in Montreal. Look at the Expos right now."

The Montreal Expos, as the teams go back into action today after the All-Star break, have the best won-lost record in the big leagues (54-33, .621).

Even so, their attendance is terrible. They've drawn 842,700 for 38 dates. The Orioles have drawn 2,255,437 for 48 dates. The first-place Expos are outdrawing only three teams in the majors.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the CFL is the game on the field. It's terrific.

I was prepared not to like it with its goofy rules (three downs instead of four, a 110-yard field, no fair catches, the rouge, people appearing to be in motion on nearly every play, etc.)

By the time I left the exhibition game here two weeks ago, I was telling people that if they had CFL rules and NFL players, they'd really have something.

Guarantee you, you've never seen such action on a football field.

Ol' Memorial Stadium is a surprise, too, especially if you went there last summer to see the Baysox and observed the park's run-down condition. It was sad.

Now the place looks good. At a cost of $300,000 the seats have been painted in rows of alternating blue and gray.

"It's amazing," Waldt says with a smile, "how a bucket of paint can brighten up a place."

Actually, quite a few buckets, or 10,000 gallons, as Waldt knows better than anyone.

Surprises. That's what you'll find if you go out to 33rd Street Saturday night. And most of them will be pleasant ones.

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