By Michael E. Miller
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In any event, you probably missed the Canadian Football League's debut in Miami. Under a gray but rainless sky, the Birmingham Barracudas lost to Baltimore in a game of football the likes of which the Orange Bowl had never seen. The field was 110 yards long, a good fire truck longer than normal. The field was wider, too, by eleven and a half yards. There were twelve men to a team instead of eleven, and three downs per possession instead of four. That's right - on the turf where Joe Namath won his Super Bowl, where Bob Griese led the Dolphins to an undefeated season, and where Bruce Dern crashed his blimp in the movie Black Sunday, a huge red maple leaf was stenciled onto the turf, right on the 55-yard line.
The thought of such a heretical game being played in such a football shrine was anathema to most Miamians, who avoided the event as if it were a bad vaudeville show -- unnecessary entertainment in an entertainment-rich city. Why invest the time and effort to see second-rate Canadian football when the legendary Hurricanes and the revered Dolphins (of the truly professional National Football League) beckon for your attention. And on that pleasant Saturday evening after the interminable rains, you surely had something better to do. You probably weren't there.
Or maybe you were. Maybe you were in the surprisingly large announced crowd of 20,250 -- an attendance figure so unbelievable that most reporters covering the game flat out didn't believe it. Maybe you were bused in with your church group or your youth group or your summer camp or some other organization that was showered with free tickets. Maybe you were one of the very few people who actually paid to attend the game.
More than likely, though, if you were there, you were a person who had some stake in the outcome, a person such as Miami Mayor Steve Clark, City Manager Cesar Odio, or City Commissioner Victor De Yurre, the leadership cadre desperate to find something, anything, no matter what the cost, to occupy the stadium and fill the void left by the Dolphins (who split in 1987) and the collegiate Orange Bowl event (set to split after one more post-season extravaganza).
Canadian Football League commissioner Larry Smith also was there, along with other league executives, most of whom spent the bulk of the game in the VIP box high above the stadium, eating cubes of cheddar cheese, drinking from the free bar, and watching the crowd more than anything, trying to determine if their financially shaky league could make it in Miami. It would be nice to have a team in such a major market instead of in typical small-time Shreveport or Regina, Saskatchewan. A Miami team could certainly help the league get the network TV contract it needs to survive. But a Miami squad would also be the first CFL team to compete for fan interest head-to-head against an NFL team. Could it be done? Was there room for both?
Bruce Frey was there, of course. He is the eternally tan Palm Beach Gardens millionaire who created this exhibition contest. In just five weeks, he found the teams, an airline to fly them down, and hotels to put them up. Working full-time on the project, he rounded up sponsors and seduced City of Miami officials so completely that they gave him the Orange Bowl free of charge. The game was broadcast on cable TV to 23 million potential viewers.
Frey cooked up the idea of such a game because he needed to show Commissioner Smith that the CFL could work in Miami, a crucial test in light of the fact that Frey needed to own a football team. Owning a professional sports franchise would give him something to do in semi-retirement besides hanging around his Palm Beach Gardens home playing with his three dogs. And he adored football.
He had dreamed of owning a professional football team since he was a kid on Chicago's South Side, watching such Monsters of the Midway as linebacker Bill George and tight end Mike Ditka play for the Chicago Bears. The desire intensified dramatically with age and the accumulation of wealth and was frustrated by two failed efforts to buy the Miami Dolphins and another to purchase the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite those setbacks, the commanding sense of purpose that helped Frey make millions in the obscure but lucrative field of distressed real estate also kept him focused on the goal of ownership. Even if that meant the crazy Canadian Football League; even if the conventional wisdom held that the league will not, cannot, make it in Miami; even if people began publicly questioning his sanity. He was going to own a football team. It was going to be called the Miami Manatees. It would play in the Orange Bowl. And it would be a success.