CFL marvel: A profitable debut year


Listening to the happy ring of the cash register and the applauding crowds has created pleasure for Jim Speros, who took a chance on Baltimore and the Canadian Football League.

Result: All expectations have been exceeded. This will be a profitable first season -- an astonishing development for any expansion team.

Speros has yet to draw a salary and lives off real estate investments and stocks he redeemed.

"I exist within my means," he insisted. "I don't charter jet planes or throw parties. I'm not that kind. I regard myself as an operating owner."

Will he share in the financial rewards? "Yes, but that'll be later." Speros said the entire Baltimore/CFL deal took a total investment of $7 million, which is about $200 million cheaper than buying into the National Football League.

It was the kind of winning opportunity Speros and his partners, Dr. Michael Gelfand and Marv Stursa, could not turn down. There was an abundance of appeal and a promising chance to make money.

"My backers are happy; we surpassed what they thought we could do," Speros said. "I used personal cash for my part. They knew I had the chance to lose the most, since I have 51 percent. It might surprise you that no bank is involved in the financing. I could have let in a lot of partial owners, but we kept it to two limited partners. As it's turning out, we got a bargain."

What does he think about those negative to the CFL, including some media voices?

"Put it this way," he replied, "those who down it have never seen a game, or else came to the stadium and left before it was over. We have quality athletes. There are less than 2,000 pro football players -- 600 in the CFL, 1,300 in the NFL -- comprising two entire countries. That says something."

Each CFL team operates under a salary cap of $1,920,000 (about $2.5 million in Canadian money), which means annual pay for players may range from $30,000 to $60,000. Bonuses are coming to some CFLers for reaching certain performance figures written into their contracts. Coach Don Matthews has qualified for two of the three bonuses listed in his agreement with Speros.

To offset the start-up franchise costs, Speros negotiated $1.6 million in corporate sponsorships -- either the payment of fees or services -- in exchange for advertising signs in the stadium. A renovated Memorial Stadium has earned commendations and the playing field has never looked better in the 40-year history of the facility.

"We have expert landscapers," Speros said. "The turf is repaired, fertilized after every game. I doubt if Colt teams ever tried that. Getting the field ready costs about $5,000 a game, but it's worth it. What helped is nine of the 10 games were played in dry weather."

Speros wants to install a new scoreboard, free of squirrels, nuisance birds and rodents that nest there. The wildlife gnaws or pecks away at the wiring, which short-circuits the lights. "We also need to upgrade our office phone system," Speros said.

There's still something else he has in mind. It's his hope that below the top deck of the enclosed end zone, where poles obscure some seats, a club-type restaurant can be built. Members could entertain guests at dinner and watch games on TV monitors.

Speros' motor is always running. He's not content to maintain status quo but works to implement new ideas. The only loan he received is the $500,000 from Baltimore City to help with needed stadium work. So far, he has been prudent, spending only $303,000.

"It must be paid back in five years," he commented. "We have the lawsuit with the NFL regarding use of the name Colts and payment of our legal fees [reported to be between $200,000 and $400,000] that will be amortized over five years."

The merits of the case seemed so winnable to another law firm, one headed by Ron Shapiro, that he wanted to do it pro bono as a civic-minded effort, but Speros failed to pursue what was a most generous offer.

Speros is indebted to his corporate sponsors and, when he meets them, wants to know if tying into the CFL has been good for business. "I just want to know if I'm helping them," he said. "If the answer is no, then I want to be told what I can do."

Bob Leffler, who helped with the marketing of the Baltimore entry, has contributed significantly to the Speros effort.

The Baltimore club will leave tomorrow for Saturday's season finale in Sacramento. A victory is needed to preserve home-field advantage in the playoffs. Matthews wanted to depart earlier than usual for the comfort of the team and Speros agreed.

The 35-year-old Speros is particularly interested in a CFL meeting scheduled in Baltimore Dec. 9-10. Three teams -- Las Vegas, Sacramento and Hamilton -- may move. Likely new cities are Memphis, Oakland and Montreal.

There's also the possibility of new expansion clubs, such as San Antonio; Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee; Birmingham, Ala.; and Orlando, Fla. The CFL aspects are so inviting that one of Speros' partners, reportedly Dr. Gelfand, is considering buying a club of his own.

Ultimately, Speros would like the Grey Cup to match the U.S. winner against the Canadian leader. The Grey Cup, listed for Baltimore in 1996, could be placed here a year earlier if Hamilton moves.

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