B.C. Lions see upside in European CFL experiment but global growth may be slow

By Ed Willes, [email protected], twitter.com/willesonsports

The ninth player taken in the CFL European Draft was linebacker Roni Salonen, who’s known as the Finnish Lawrence Taylor. That was two spots behind BC Lions pick Benjamin Plu. Just hope this doesn’t turn into one of those ugly Olli Juolevi-Matthew Tkachuk things.

There is much in the wording of the B.C. Lions’ press release that is familiar for a training-camp hopeful.

The Leos have invited a random receiver to camp whose name is completely unfamiliar to 99 per cent of all football fans. Said receiver is a rangy 6-3, 190 pounds and demonstrated enough athletic ability at a recent scouting combine to intrigue the Lions coaching staff.

Every year, a dozen or so of these players show up at Lions camp and disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.

There’s just one difference with this particular dude. He played with the powerhouse Thonon-les-Bains Black Panthers in the elite division of the French Federation of American Football last season and he’s from Le Mans, France.

“We didn’t go to France to scout him,” advises Lions GM Ed Hervey.

Pity. That would have made a great feature and I, for one, would have volunteered to write it.

“I don’t see it being a distraction,” Hervey continues. “It’s been talked about so much and so often, I think all the coaches and players understand where we are in this project. They’re going to get their opportunity and compete. It’s football.

“We feel good about (Benjamin Plu) coming in. We don’t think he’ll embarrass himself.”

Which is the same thing the CFL is hoping for in this venture.

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie is hoping to take the Canadian football brand around the world, or at least into Europe and Mexico markets, by drawing in players from domestic leagues. Frank Gunn / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Plu is one of nine players taken Thursday in the CFL’s inaugural European draft, and the mere fact we’re penning a CFL column in mid-April suggests the draft served its purpose.

As part of the newly imagined league, the CFL invited 18 “global” players to its Canadian scouting combine in Toronto that has now served up nine ready-made training-camp features for the various scribes located around the Dominion.

Just so you know, the ninth player taken in the draft was linebacker Roni Salonen, who’s known as the Finnish Lawrence Taylor. That was two spots behind Plu. Just hope this doesn’t turn into one of those ugly Olli Juolevi-Matthew Tkachuk things.

The European draft is also part of the much-discussed CFL 2.0, an initiative that hopes to take the league’s brand around the world. In January, the Canadian game struck its first blow in its quest for global domination when it drafted 27 players from Mexico’s League of American Football (LFA) —which means Plu will be joined at Lions camp by wide receiver Alvarez Gerardo, defensive lineman Octavio Gonzales and wide receiver Fernando Martinez.

Hervey, you should know, has no illusions about the four players who’ll be attending the main camp in Kamloops. When asked what he saw in Toronto and the LFA combine in Mexico City, you get comments like “better than we expected” and ‘It’s going to be a learning experience for them.”

But Hervey is also aware of the long game the CFL is playing here — of the opportunities this could create and the revenue streams it could launch.

Right now it doesn’t represent much, but the CFL envisions a universe where there is a free exchange of players between Canada and the domestic leagues around the world; where there are streaming deals in Mexico and Europe; where there are exciting new markets for the CFL.

“We were all pleasantly surprised over how much interest there is and how much passion there is for the game,” CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie says over the phone. “What happened was so eye-opening. If we’re vigilant and thoughtful, we can play a leadership role in global football.”

In these early days, the new frontier represents something exciting, and a little dangerous, to Ambrosie. The North American game has been played in Europe going back to the ’70s and there are currently some 32 domestic leagues on the continent, 1,200 teams of varying levels and 50,000 or so players.

And that’s just Europe. In addition to Mexico, the game has a solid following in Brazil. Ambrosie has been in contact with Australia. China and Japan lie further down the road.

“We’re talking to them all,” Ambrosie says.

As for the quality of the international game, we’ll have a better idea after seeing this first generation of players at CFL camps. For the curious, we invite you to visit thAmerican Football International website where, among other things, you could watch the livestream of the Black Panthers’ meeting with the Tirol Swarco Raiders in Innsbruck on Saturday or learn that Galo Futebol Americano beat Joao Pessoa Espectros to win the Brazil Bowl IX in December.

“They’re talking about the CFL in Europe,” says Roger Kelly, the managing editor of the website. “The CFL offers a unique opportunity. The NFL is an incredible opportunity but the chances of making the NFL are minimal. The CFL is more realistic.”

Kelly is one of the connecting points between the CFL and the European leagues and therein lies a story. He was the Lions’ public relations director from 1990 to ’96 before he moved to Sweden with wife Inga.

He’s since made a couple of presentations to the CFL about the opportunities that Europe presents, and if you’re still skeptical, here’s something to consider: This week, the NFL announced all four AFC East teams will invite an international player to their training camps.

“We’re not interested in compromising the integrity of the game,” Hervey says. “The players must have some qualities you can work with. Our hope is over time the skill level rises and we’ll get higher-quality players. We hope they go back to their domestic league as better players who can contribute to the game’s growth. We have a responsibility to grow our league and the game. We have to think of where this could be in 10 years.”

And not necessarily where it is in the first year.

Read the original story by Ed Willes in The Province 

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