Sure, Miami has an empty stadium. And sure, Bruce Frey has pigskin on the brain. But that's no excuse for the Canadian football league.

From the moment Frey announced that an exhibition game would be held in the Orange Bowl, attendance was the principal issue. If he could draw a large crowd to the stands, he could more easily convince the CFL that Miami was ready for its peculiar brand of football. Frey did what he could to ensure a good turnout: All proceeds would be donated to the surviving victims of the Oklahoma City bombing; kids who brought a get-well card for Oklahoma would get in free; and, for safety's sake, 35,000 free tickets were handed out. "If only 7000 people show up," Frey said a day before the event, "I'll be at the corner bar knocking back a drink."

Most of the freebies were given to Miami city employees and to any businesses associated with the game. Frey boasted about the level of corporate support, but judging from the posters that lined the playing field, that didn't stretch much past the radio-station variety: Continental Airlines, which flew the teams down; the Eden Roc Hotel, which hosted one team; and Kenny Rogers Roasters, which provided the garlic potatoes for the press, received one poster apiece. Most of the posters touted the City of Miami or the International Trade Board or some other governmental body. The major private sponsor was PacifiCare, the fourth-largest managed health care company in the nation. For $30,000 PacifiCare got its name printed on the tickets and was allowed to make an announcement at halftime. "The sole attractive piece to me was the link to charity and the link to Oklahoma," said Rich Harris, a PacifiCare vice president. "It was more along those lines than the merit of the CFL at this moment."

The saturation of the market with free tickets was obvious outside the stadium only minutes before kickoff. Scalpers had surrendered long before, realizing that not even three dollars was cheap enough for the fans. Dozens of men attempted to unload scores of tickets they'd picked up at their places of work. "Anybody need tickets? Anybody want tickets?" shouted Frank, an older man wearing a white Notre Dame baseball cap. He stood at the west end of the stadium. "I can't give 'em away," he lamented, adding that Canadian football is an exciting game. "This will catch on some day, but I don't know about down here. They've already got the Dolphins."

A few yards away, another man -- an employee of the Miami parks and recreation department -- nearly harassed passersby into taking some tickets off his hands. "I had a busload of 119 kids that were supposed to be here," he grumbled, "but only two showed up."

Maybe the kids simply didn't want to see Canadian football, a watered-down cousin of the NFL. Founded in 1891, the Canadian Football League is one of the oldest professional sports leagues in existence. It is also one of the oddest. Its legendary teams are in remote locales such as Winnipeg and Edmonton. The league's star players are NFL washouts such as Doug Flutie and his brother Darren. Two CFL teams share the same nickname, while one team doesn't have a nickname at all. One franchise actually drafted a player who had been dead for several months.

In the late 1950s, the CFL was roughly equal to the National Football League in both the number of teams and attendance rates. Then the NFL signed on with CBS television, which helped make it the premier sports league in the world. Without a network contract, the CFL drifted into obscurity. Once popular teams like the Edmonton Eskimos saw their season-ticket sales drop from 52,000 in 1983 to only 15,000 last year. The Montreal team folded. Teams in Toronto, Ottawa, and Regina threatened to follow suit.

Larry Smith was given the task of saving the enterprise. A former running back for Montreal, Smith was working as an executive at the Labatt's Brewing Company in 1992 when the league named him its new commissioner. He accepted the job with a mandate for growth. Expansion remains critical to the financially strapped league because each new team kicks in three million dollars as a sort of initiation fee, money that is then used to prop up the struggling Canadian clubs. The more new teams, the more money there is to go around. In 1993, recognizing the limits of growth within Canada, Smith decided to expand into the United States. Franchises were awarded over the next two years to Las Vegas, Sacramento, Baltimore, Shreveport, Birmingham, and San Antonio.

Since then, the first two American franchises have moved or folded. And the nicknameless Baltimore club, considered the big success story because of its league-leading attendance last year, actually lost more than a million dollars and padded its gate by giving away more than 10,000 tickets every game.

The owner of the Las Vegas Posse never bothered to conduct any market research and as a result didn't know that Las Vegas is a horrible sports town. He budgeted for sellouts every game at the 32,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium. He spent thousands of dollars he didn't have on advertising. He even spent $100,000 just for the rights to negotiate with Charlie Ward, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State University. (Ward chose to play basketball for the New York Knicks instead.)

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