Don't get your hopes up

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

On June 3, 1965 -- two years before the Maple Leafs would win their last Stanley Cup -- the National Football League went public with a list of 10 cities the league was considering for expansion.

Prominent on that list was the city of Toronto.

Eight months before that announcement, in November 1964, a construction magnate named Lawrence Shankman officially applied for an NFL franchise for this city.

He offered to build a dome stadium (without taxpayer assistance) at 401 and Dixie Rd., had a brewery on board, and was willing to meet the league requirements of the day -- a 40,000-seat stadium, 25,000 season-ticket subscribers and working capital of $1 million

Almost 42 years later, the song remains the same.

The price has changed -- $1 million yesterday now translates to $1 billion today. The names have changed as well.

But the results have hardly wavered.

Someone from Toronto is forever knocking on the NFL's doors. This is the fifth decade of flirtation. We are nothing if not hopelessly persistent.

The NFL is our Runaway Bride; Toronto is the groom that never makes it to the altar. There was no marriage then. Despite the naive and giddy headlines you might have seen this week, there is no marriage now.

The dance and the dream continues. The reality is, Toronto was actually closer to getting an NFL franchise 42 years ago and closer 10 years ago than it is today. Only Art Modell -- and others -- keep stepping on the toes of those who attempt on behalf of this city.

In 1965, when Shankman was travelling city to city to sell NFL owners on the virtues of Toronto and his ownership bid, he landed in Cleveland and met with Modell, then owner of the Browns.

Modell was clear: The NFL had no interest in Toronto as long as the Canadian Football League still was alive.

New Orleans was awarded an expansion franchise, bringing the league to 16 teams.

In the mid-1990s, when Paul Godfrey and friends were pushing hard for an NFL franchise at a time when the CFL seemed on its death bed, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, a Canadian himself, told me, "they were getting very close to acceptance."

Then Modell, for the second time, unknowingly messed up the Toronto hopefuls.

Against the best wishes of the NFL, Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore from Cleveland. The league had no real interest in being in Baltimore. At the time, it had 30 teams and wanted to expand to 32.

The major market of Los Angeles, without a team, was the obvious choice.

Toronto was thought to be the second choice.

But after Modell took the money and ran to Baltimore, owner Bud Adams moved the Houston Oilers to Tennessee. Suddenly, the NFL had no teams in Cleveland or Houston.

Showing both conscience and good sense, the NFL,under commissioner Paul Tagliabue, expanded to both Houston and Cleveland -- and Toronto was once again on the outside looking in.

And now there is a certain symmetry to the latest Toronto football noise. A group that includes Larry Tanenbaum, Paul Godfrey, Ted Rogers, and one his lieutenants, Phil Lind -- shooters, all of them -- will be flying in Tanenbaum's private plane to Cleveland to watch the Browns play and ostensibly begin another cosy game of footsie with NFL owners.

Whether this goes any further than past attempts is pure conjecture at this point. We flirt. They listen. We smile. They go for dinner but offer no promises. But know this much: This group is no closer to getting a franchise, and quite possibly further away, than Shankman was in the mid '60s or Godfrey and Rudy Bratty and Doug Creighton were in the late '80s.

There are any number of problems any Toronto bid faces, beginning with a television issue neither the league nor the potential owners can fix.

You see, the NFL makes its money from television. Translation: It makes its money from sponsorship. As long as the CRTC allows Canadian cable companies and stations to freeze out American commercials on their systems, the NFL can hardly convince advertisers that Canadian expansion is much of a buy.

Add the existence of the CFL, stadium issues, ridiculously high franchise fees, and unwillingness to share the wealth -- and, well, what you are left with is hope, but not a lot.

Would I want the NFL in Toronto? Absolutely.

Do I believe it's possible? Absolutely not.

So let the dreamers dream. Who knows? "Toronto was ready for big-time football back then," a senior named Lawrence Shankman said yesterday. "It's still ready now.


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