Eskimos need new brains at front office as well as on the field.

For the first time in recent memory, the Edmonton Eskimos appear destined to not lead the league in attendance. With Mosaic Stadium in Regina on steroids in preparation for the Grey Cup, the Riders have enjoyed even larger crowds than usual. With the entire Eskimo organization giving off the fetid stench of decay, it’s hardly surprising that crowds have dropped off.

I suspect the Eskimo brass will be inclined to blame the team’s shameful record, but that’s far from the only reason for this year’s dismal crowd counts. I suspect that even if the Eskimos were 10-3 instead of 3-10, the crowds wouldn’t be a whole lot better.  The bigger problem is that the Eskimos don’t have a clue in how to sell the product in a crowded marketplace.

It’s not enough to open the doors and expect people to line up to get in. Even the Oilers (who have thousands of lemmings ready to pay exorbitant amounts to watch a crappy team) know that they have to sell the game. The Eskimos? No clue.

The Edmonton Eskimos have thousand of seats to peddle each game, and nine chances to do it. Amazingly, they don’t seem to have any clue how to do it. Last year, someone in the team hierarchy decided that bringing in faded singers and cut-rate reality stars would bring in the fans (the low point was bringing in a former star of The Bachelor, a move which I’m sure resulted in exactly zero extra tickets sold). That didn’t work, clearly, so this year the Eskimos opted to do … nothing. No promotions. No gimmicks. Nothing. Just overpriced tickets (cheapest is $25 in the nosebleeds) and game presentation that is, at best, sub-par, at worst, enough to chase away formerly loyal fans, like me.

The Eskimos clearly have decided to put all their eggs in the season ticket basket. They appear to be making no effort to lure in the casual fan, the folks who might want to go to go to two or three games a year, middling fans who just want a fun, relatively inexpensive night out.  If you can go to a movie for two for under $25, you’re going to have to do something special to get that same couple to part with $50 to go to a football game. To get those casual fans, you have to make an effort.

Here’s an idea: BOGO. Have a ‘buy one, get one free’ ticket night. Here’s another: have a $10 ticket night (cheapest tickets only so as not to piss off season ticket holders). Or how about a flash ticket sale via Twitter or Facebook with reduced ticket prices for a select time? I mean, c’mon, Eskimos, you’ve got to come up with nine ideas to sell tickets. I’ve just given you three. Hell, it would be better to give away those empty seats just to get some people in the building (who will no doubt buy food and drink) rather than a half-empty building devoid of atmosphere.

(Oh, and for the loyal fans that buy an entire season? How about a loyalty card that entitles them to a percentage off merchandize and food? Or contests with big prizes available ONLY to season seat holders? Or maybe add one season seat holder to the board of directors for a one-year term to get a feel for what the paying public thinks?)

Once you get them through the gates, you’ve got to stop treating the fans like they’ve never been to a football game before. We do NOT need generic, crappy music blasted at full decibels at every break. If you need noise, pump in some fake crowd noise, ANYTHING but your music choices. And get a new announcer who doesn’t treat every Eskimo first down like it’s the second coming of Jackie Parker. (Speaking of second comings, any chance of resurrecting the late, great Wes Montgomery? Or, failing that, find one, single Edmonton radio personality with a modicum of wit to handle the PA chores. Surely such a person exists, right? I say, and I right?)

See, Eskimos? It’s not that hard. Hire an outside marketing firm if you must. It will be money well spent if you add a few thousand more bums in seats. Unless something changes at the top, the head coach’s head won’t be the only one that should roll.

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The Ricky Ray trade: how is this anything but an Argo win?

Remember this?

When I first heard that the Edmonton Eskimos had traded quarterback Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts for quarterback Steven Jyles, my first thought was: “Is Eric Tillman crazy?”

Turns out, he’s not crazy. He’s courageous. Just ask him.

“Ultimately, though, you have to have the courage to do what you believe is right,” the spiky-haired Esk GM said after the fact. Ah, so he’s not crazy, or stupid, or a dupe. He’s courageous.

My hero.

My second thought upon absorbing the news that Ray, the face of the franchise for nine years and two Grey Cups, was now an Argo was that there had to be something else in this deal. I mean, it couldn’t be just Jyles (who has bumped around the CFL with Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Toronto without ever making an impression), some kicker named Grant Snow and a draft choice, could it? There had to be a Part II to this deal. Was Brett Favre making his final comeback with the Eskimos? Was Toronto going to ship the Skydome roof to Edmonton? I mean, c’mon… what else was there?

Turns out, as of this writing, there is no Part II. This is it. Grey Cup winner, multiple Eskimo record holder, one of the CFL’s best QBs in the past decade, stand-up guy all around, for … seriously, there has to be more than this.

Tillman said Toronto was aggressive in its efforts to get Ray, and their offer was too good to pass up. Good lord, what were the other offers?

Barker: “OK, Eric, here’s the deal. A bad of practice balls and a wad of used tape for Ricky Ray.”

Tillman: “Jim, that is insulting. It has to be at least NEW tape, or no deal.”

Barker (stifling a laugh): “You drive a hard bargain, Eric, but let’s talk…”

At the Toronto press conference, Barker actually managed to say that the Argos “gave up a lot” for Ray without bursting out in maniacal, Sideshow Bob-style cackling.

Now, I am willing to concede that Eric Tillman knows a little bit more about the inner workings of the CFL than I do. And I am also willing to admit that there were many times last season when I thought Ray was, if not washed up, at least in the rinse cycle. I called for him to be pulled in probably half the Eskimo games this year. But the old saw in sports goes that the team that got the best player wins a trade, and if that’s true, than the Argos win this hands down.

The Argos go into the 2012 season with a proven winner at QB. The Eskimos enter 2012 with a QB who has failed to impress in every city he’s played in, and backup QBs whose names I can’t recall. The Eskimos gain about $250,000 in cap space (which, in the CFL, should be good for about a dozen players), and a QB who is three years younger. The Argos get a proven winner, the Eskimos get potential, at best.

Tillman had a chance to unload his highest paid player, get a younger and cheaper QB, and look like a genius if this works out.  And maybe that’s the real reason for a trade. Eric Tillman has been given his chance to burnish his reputation as a Machiavellian CFL genius. But, I don’t see this working. The one thing I know for certain is that the Eskimos are a poorer team today than they were two days ago.

How TSN is hurting the CFL.

The Canadian Football League, the plucky little collective that has survived almost in spite of itself since 1958, is about to enter its post-season. It’s my favourite three sporting weekends of the year, culminating in the 99th Grey Cup (or, to put it in terms Americans would understand, Grey Cup XCIV).

I love good ol’ CFL. A lot of Canadians snub the league because it’s not “world class” like the behemoth that is the National Football League. Our players are smaller, and somehow lesser athletes, to listen to the distracters. In their thinking, our game is somehow lesser simply because it’s, well, Canadian.

That is so Canadian, isn’t it?. I could argue back and forth about the merits of both games and both leagues, but why bother? I have nothing against the NFL. My problem with the NFL is that I don’t have a team to support, and I’m not the kind of guy who can just plunk himself down in front of a TV and watch a sporting event.  I watch the CFL because, to paraphrase their slogan, it’s our game. Canadian rules, Canadian cities (with lots of American players); what could be more Canadian than that?

But here’s what I don’t love about the CFL, and I think it’s the single biggest reason so many Canadians turn to the NFL for their football fix — TSN, home of every single CFL game, pretty much sucks at televising football. I believe that if TSN produced games up to the same standards as American television — or even a close approximation — the CFL would gain in popularity by yards.

Nobody expects the CFL to look as good as the NFL does on TV. The NFL, with its two-billion-dollar TV deal, is the most prized franchise in television.  The CFL cannot compete with the NFL in production values. But it can try. And to my eyes, TSN has stopped trying.

The CFL on TSN is in a rut. The production has remained unchanged for years, from its dreadful opening music to its tired graphics to its high-school announcing crews.

So, what’s wrong with the CFL on TSN? Let’s begin in the truck.

The biggest problem with TSN broadcasts is the direction. We need an American to show us how to televise a football game.

For instance, what is with the obsession with lingering close ups of players? I like the idea of seeing what these guys look like, but anything over 10 seconds gets downright creepy. And it’s painfully obvious that the players are embarrassed, too. While a TSN game will hold a shot for 20, 30 seconds (often a coach staring off into the distance) a typical NFL broadcast will have show the coach, a player, some fans and some cheerleaders in the same amount of time.

Then there’s the technology. The most recent technological innovation at TSN is the virtual first down line, which first appeared on TSN years after it first appeared Stateside. (I get the feeling TSN purchased used equipment from the American networks; the line tends to fade in and out, and sometimes even moves.) Incredibly, TSN has not invested any of its fabulous profits into super slow motion technology, which is at least a decade old. The fact that a so-called sports network hasn’t invested in cutting edge technology for one of its premiere products tells me they’re doing everything on the cheap.

And now we come to the guys in the booth.

I have no complaints about Chris Cuthbert, the lone saving grace of the CFL on TSN. After that, it’s community access TV. There’s Rod (Red Zone, Green Zone) Black. He might know figure skating, but he is clueless about football. His partner in tedium, Duane Forde, brings nothing to the broadcast, but I’ll take a whole season of Duane Forde over the verbal diarrhea that spews forth from Glen Suitor. Suitor, who fills every available second of airtime with prattle, talks to viewers like they’ve never seen a football game before. Suitor and all of the TSN crew have a see no evil attitude towards the players and the referees. Watch an NFL game, and chances are a commentator will call a bad play a bad play. Not so in the rose colored universe of the CFL on TSN.

The CFL certainly benefited financially from its exclusive deal with TSN, but I still think the league has been shortchanged.  Bell Media owns CTV and TSN, and when the contract comes up for renegotiation, the CFL should insist the Grey Cup be simulcast, and promoted heavily, on CTV. CTV promotes the hell out of the Super Bowl, but acts like the Grey Cup isn’t happening.

If I were the CFL commissioner, I would insist that TSN:

1)   invest in new technology

2)   get some fresh blood in the booth

3)   ban the lingering close ups of players

4)   hire some directors — Americans, if need be — who know how to televise a football game.

5)   Insist that CTV promote the CFL as heavily as it promotes its NFL broadcasts.

The CFL on TSN needs a revamp, from top to bottom. And if TSN isn’t interested in making changes, the CFL should go elsewhere.

In the meantime, enjoy the playoffs. I predict Calgary will beat the Esks (sad to say), and Hamilton will finally get past the first round and beat Montreal. And nobody is going to stop the B.C. Lions.

Love the Esks, hate the show.

I saw the most horrible thing ever on Saturday, and it had nothing to do with Halloween.

I went to the Eskimos versus Winnipeg game at Commonwealth. The horror, the horror …

It wasn’t so much the game, which was one of the worst sports events I have ever witnessed. Yes, it was incredibly frustrating that Eskimo coach Richie Hall apparently didn’t even think to put in competent, proven QB Jason Maas when the extraordinarily inept Jared Zabransky was throwing four interceptions (which, at least, hit a target, which is more than I can say for most of his passes). It wasn’t even that the Eskimos didn’t just run the ball all game long, knowing that Zabransky can’t throw a ball, but he can run like a lunatic. (Fittingly, the Esks won in overtime on two running plays by Daniel Porter). No, crappy games happen. But combine a crappy game with cold weather, ear-splitting troglodyte rock and roll music over three-plus hours, and it becomes a true horror story.

I used to be an Eskimo season ticket holder, but I gave them up some years ago when their game presentation got so aggravating, I couldn’t enjoy the games. Saturday’s game was the first I’ve been to in a couple of years, but sad to say, nothing has changed. The Eskimos still insist on treating their dwindling fan base to a high-decibel assault on their ears, and their intelligence.

Why do the Esks insist on playing “music” at every break in the action? I guess they’re trying to add some atmosphere to a pretty quiet building, but the music is generic, screaming guitar, ‘raise a little hell’ brand crap that is played nowhere outside of redneck bars. Not only is the music uniformly terrible, it is LOUD, VERY VERY LOUD. What in God’s name are they thinking?

Then there’s the PA announcer, whose name I do not know. This shill insists on selling every Eskimo first down as it it was the game winning touchdown in the Grey Cup…”Porter takes it up the field for two yards, and it’s a FIRST DOOOOOWWWWN ESKIMOOOOS.” Then there are the endless pleas to “MAKE SOME NOISE FOR YOUR DEFENSE”, along with various other high-volume encouragements.

Hey, pal, we’re not idiots. We do not need to be yelled at.

I guess, maybe, if the game has been good, the endless assault on my ears would have been tolerable. It might not have bothered me that a 72-year-old woman won the right to try and punt, pass and kick for $100,000 (hey, lady, why the hell did you enter a contest you could not possible win and rob someone who could have won the right to play?). It got cold, too, which it wouldn’t have been if the Eskimos had the brains to hold the game in the bright sunlight on a Saturday October afternoon, instead of the chill of a late October night.

Hey, I love the Esks and the CFL. But until they throw out their game presentation and start all over again, giving their fans a little credit for intelligence, I’m not even going to take a free ticket. I’m done.