Canadian Football in Milwaukee? It Almost Happened

Oct. 10, 2016
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Pictured Above: Milwaukee County Stadium in football mode in 1994.


Just a few weeks after Brett Favre made a frantic headfirst dive into the County Stadium endzone to beat the Atlanta Falcons and close the book on the Packers playing in Milwaukee, there was talk – serious talk – of a team relocating to Milwaukee to replace the departed Packers and keep the Cream City in the pro football business. Of course, no NFL team would be willing (or allowed) to encroach on Packerland, but the Canadian Football League (CFL) was more than willing – eager even – to plant their flag in Milwaukee.

The writing was on the wall for Milwaukee NFL football by the early 1990s. With expansions planned at Lambeau Field – including the addition of nearly 100 new private boxes – it no longer made financial sense for the Packers to continue their 60-plus year tradition of playing a portion of their home schedule in Milwaukee. The timing was lousy in more ways than one for Milwaukee. The Packers had finally reached the end of their quarter-century post-Lombardi slump and were about to begin an equally-long run of success. The departure also dealt a financial blow to the Brewers and ensured that the Packers would not play a role in their quest for a new publically-financed stadium.

 

Pictured Above: Brett Favre celebrates after scoring the winning touchdown in the Packers’ final game in Milwaukee.

But while the NFL regarded the Packers shift as a move in the right direction for one of the league’s landmark franchises, the CFL saw it as an opportunity. An exclusively-Canadian enterprise since its founding in 1958, the CFL limped into the 1990s nearing financial disaster. Nearly every one of the league’s teams were having money troubles by 1993, when CFL officials embraced the idea of expansion into the US marketplace as a summertime pro football league as a potential saving grace.

In 1993, the league expanded into Sacramento and, in 1994, added franchises in Shreveport, Las Vegas, and Baltimore. The Baltimore franchise – unofficially branded as the reborn Baltimore Colts – were by far the most successful of the American teams, averaging over 37,000 fans per game. The Las Vegas Posse, on the other hand, was a failure in all respects. They drew fewer than 10,000 fans per game – including a low attendance of just over 2,300. They finished the season with a record of 5-13 and were so financially strapped that they were forced to hold team practices in the parking lot of the Riviera Hotel. By the end of the season, the franchise was looking for a new home.

In Milwaukee, real estate developer Marvin Fishman began making phone calls. Fishman had been among the original owners of the Milwaukee Bucks and had tried to win an American Football League franchise for Milwaukee in 1965. He loved the idea of introducing Canadian football to Milwaukee and CFL officials were similarly excited about the idea of moving into the Cream City. Milwaukee had a built-in and eager fanbase cultivated by the Packers and a high-capacity facility in County Stadium. Just after the new year, the Milwaukee Journal reported that the only thing standing in the way of Milwaukee joining the CFL was the seemingly pedestrian finalization of a lease between the new team and the Brewers. Fishman, who was poised to become a partner with the existing Posse ownership, prepared to announce the move.

But it was not quite so simple as that. For one thing, Milwaukee was a poor fit for Canadian football. Literally. While the standard NFL playing field of 120 yards just fit onto the grass at County Stadium, the 150 yard-long CFL field would have required major renovations to the bleachers. But CFL backers were confident that a waiver from the league could allow a Milwaukee franchise to play on a smaller-than-regulation field.

Furthermore, Fishman had overestimated the Brewers’ interest in sharing their home with a CFL team. He had hoped that the Brewers might require only a token yearly lease payment – something along the lines of $1 per year – in order to take in the additional concession and parking money from nine CFL home games per year. But the Brewers did not see it that way. Packers games had been regular sell-outs and provided excellent concession revenues during the off-season. But the CFL season ran July to November, meaning the Brewers would have to deal with the bi-weekly wear and tear to the field for most of the summer and could potentially lose out on lucrative weekend home series (CFL games were played on Saturdays) to accommodate the football club. And looking to the future, the Brewers wanted as few complications as possible with their plans for a new baseball-only facility – one that would likely mean the demolition of County Stadium. If a CFL team called the stadium home, an argument could be made for keeping it standing after the Brewers left, possibly upsetting plans to built a new ballpark near the present stadium site. The Brewers countered Fishman’s request for free rent by asking for more than $40,000 per game in rent – a figure that the Posse group could not hope to pay.

Pictured Above: CFL commissioner Larry Smith, who championed Milwaukee County Stadium as a site for CFL relocation or expansion, even though the Canadian rules field would not fit on its playing surface.


Throughout the spring of 1995, with the Packers gone and the Brewers out on strike, talk lingered of the CFL in Milwaukee, either through expansion or relocation. The Shreveport Pirates – coached by former Packers head coach Forrest Gregg – were rumored to looking at Milwaukee, as were the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. That August, CFL commissioner Larry Smith toured County Stadium and proclaimed it a perfect site for CFL football. “It’s a fantastic market that already has a football tradition,” he said in a press conference in the stadium parking lot.

But as he spoke, the CFL’s American experiment was already doomed. The Las Vegas Posse, unable to find a suitable home after the Milwaukee deal fell apart, had moved their operations to Miami and planned to rejoin the league in 1996. But the 1995 season – in which the CFL featured five American teams, including new franchises in Birmingham and Memphis – would be the last for the CFL in US. Admitting that American interest in the Canadian version of the game was too sparse, the league retreated north of the border for the 1996 season and has since remained there. The 1994 Packers-Falcons thriller remains the last pro football game played in Milwaukee.


Check out Matthew J. Prigge’s new book, Outlaws, Rebels, & Vixens: Motion Picture Censorship in Milwaukee, 1914-1971 – Available now!

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