CFL strikes deal with Chicagoan, salvages Ottawa team . . . for now


Chicago entrepreneur Horn Chen rescued Ottawa's Canadian Football League franchise -- at least temporarily -- when he reached a tentative agreement to purchase the debt-riddled Rough Riders from outgoing owner Bruce Firestone yesterday.

The sale is subject to approval by the CFL's board of governors during league meetings in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, starting today.

The deal culminated a week of frantic negotiations for CFL commissioner Larry Smith, who solicited an offer Friday to move the Las Vegas Posse to Jackson, Miss.

If both ownership changes are approved, it would give the league 14 teams -- including six in the United States -- for the 1995 season. But the move to Jackson is problematic for owners seeking a lucrative American TV contract. With a population base of 400,000, it would be the second-smallest CFL city next to Regina, Saskatchewan (150,000).

And, because of proximity, neither of the new expansion teams in Birmingham, Ala., or Memphis, Tenn., is in favor of adding Jackson. In deference to that situation, Baltimore owner Jim Speros voted against Jackson in a straw vote last week.

Still, Jackson investors met a league mandate by depositing $3 million in an escrow account last week. Officials have guaranteed season-ticket sales of 15,000, offered a lease of $1 rent for use of Memorial Stadium, and promised state funds for upgrading the facility.

Chen, meanwhile, should have little difficulty gaining approval. He runs several restaurants in Chicago, is the majority investor in the Central Hockey League, and owns the Indianapolis Ice in the International Hockey League as well as two teams in the East Coast Hockey League.

Terms of the deal were not released, but it's expected Chen will be free to leave Ottawa after one season. He will inherit a team $1.5 million in debt with no head coach and a string of 15 consecutive losing seasons.

Chen expressed interest in the team last month, but did not make an offer. When Mobile, Ala., businessman Elliot Maisel backed away from a deal last week, Chen resurfaced for some intense negotiations. Faced with today's meetings, talks lasted until 4:30 a.m. yesterday and then resumed 3 1/2 hours later.

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