Fifty years ago today, I was most likely doing one of three things: pretending I was Wendell Hudson while shooting at the basketball goal tacked onto an oak tree in the middle of my backyard; pretending I was Don Maynard running an improvised pass pattern while reeling in a Joe Namath aerial; or pretending I was a puppet master while playing with my Adventure Team G.I. Joe (with life-like air and beard).
All three were noble pursuits for a 10-year old, especially on a Saturday in the early summer. But the day was also quite significant in my journey as a sports fan. Why? Because on May 29, 1971, American newspapers announced that the Canadian Football League would begin televising some of its games on U.S. stations.
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According to Associated Press:
The Canadian Football League, which has lured some big-name college players north, may take away some of college football’s television audience this fall.
The International Broadcasting Company, an independent network with headquarters (in Hayward, California), announced last week that CFL games will be telecast next season, mostly on Saturday afternoons, to at least 15 major markets.
Robert M. Green, president of the network, said the U.S. television rights were purchased for about $500,000.
The CFL’s commissioner, Jake Gaurdaur, (sic) was here for Thursday’s announcement and called the television money “minimal at present.”
But, he said, the U.S. television exposure will help CFL teams sign more good American players.
“If an American player is seen on television here, he’ll establish his name for the time when he finishes his playing days,” Gaurdaur (sic) said.
Despite misspelling Gaudaur’s name, the story brought good tidings. At the time I thought the only “TV football” that existed was the kind offered by the NFL and NCAA, but here was a whole new league (to me) that started play in the summer.
And while I’d love to tell you specifics of the first CFL game I ever watched, I can’t – I only know that whenever a game was on, I made every effort to watch.
Recalling memories from half a century ago can be tough – and sometimes you later learn that a few of them are false. I never remember a CFL game being broadcast on a Saturday afternoon, and I’m quite certain they never went head-to-head with college football on ABC – at least not in the Birmingham TV market. But I want to say the games I saw as a kid were on the CBS affiliate, always on a taped delayed basis, always at night, and edited to fit into maybe a two-hour window.
I watched the Hamilton Tiger-Cats play and became a fan of the team based on their hyphenated nickname and black and gold color scheme.
There was a game involving the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in which the announcers talked about how big and pesky the mosquitoes were. Weird that bit of info stuck with me, but it has.
And I recall Alex Karras doing color commentary and thinking, “Hey … he used to play for the Detroit Lions.”
All random stuff, I know, and mere snapshots to the bigger picture, which was that of a gridiron style that I fell in love with. Three downs to make 10 yards was downright exotic in my book, and those end zones (25 yards deep at the time) meant a QB could throw long on first-and-goal situation.
Further research shows that the 1972 American TV slate was aborted in August of that year because the syndicated network didn’t think the CFL games could compete with the NFL, which was already well into its exhibition season.
But in 1973 another American syndicate – this one led by baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner – reached a 21-week deal with the CFL that resulted in midweek TV games.
By 1974, however, the league’s appearance on U.S. stations was reduced to 30-minute highlight packages that were lost in the shuffle of “traditional” football. I might’ve whined more were it not for the fact the World Football League began play that year, so my summer football passion had shifted to the Birmingham Americans.
But Jack Gotta – who led the Ottawa Rough Riders to the Grey Cup in 1973 – was the head coach of the Ams, and starting quarterback Georgia Mira had spent his previous two seasons with the Montreal Alouettes. So, in a way, the CFL lived on in my new favorite ballclub.
All these years later I’m still passionate about the Canadian Football League, hoping it comes back healthy and looking forward to watching as many games as I can on ESPN+. And when news breaks about the TV schedule this time, I won’t be outside pretending to be Wendell Hudson or Don Maynard or playing with G.I. Joes.
At least not as far as you know …