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CFL, XFL in discussions about potential partnership


TORONTO — Twenty-six years after being released by the Calgary Stampeders, Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson is looking at re-establishing his CFL ties.

Both the CFL and XFL revealed Wednesday they're poised to begin serious discussions about a potential partnership. Neither side would say who initiated talks first, only that they've agreed to collaborating on ways to grow football.

Johnson, an actor and former pro wrestler, is a co-owner of the American-based XFL.

"It's an exciting moment for us to really start talking about how do we collaborate," CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said. "That's a great word and it's at the heart of this.

"Where that leads we don't know, but it's going to be exciting. Sometimes we over-use the phrase world class but they are world-class people."

In a statement Wednesday, the XFL put its plans to return in the spring of 2022 on hold, "pending the outcome of our conversations with the CFL."

The timing of the talks is curious, given the CFL has a bigger, more immediate challenge before it — resuming play in 2021 after being forced to cancel the '20 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Look, we're full speed ahead on our return-to-play plan for the 2021 CFL season," Ambrosie said. "All of this is about what will happen in the future.

"So 2021 is our absolute focus and then you use this conversation we're kicking off to talk about the future beyond 2021."

It's a fact not lost upon Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young, whose city is scheduled to host this year's Grey Cup.

"While there was some interesting news (Wednesday) from the Canadian Football League office, rest assured that our singular focus now is getting back on the field in 2021 and putting on the best Grey Cup in CFL history," he said in a statement. "Our commitment to our fans is that we will accomplish both."

Later, Young wouldn't say one way or the other his feelings about the move.

"For the record: At this time there is nothing for (Ticats) fans like me to like or dislike about this news," Young tweeted. "The (CFL) should talk to everyone who might help it achieve even greater success. @TheRock."

Johnson purchased the XFL last year with business partner Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital for US$15 million. The expectation was it would resume play in the spring of 2022.

Johnson played football collegiately at Miami. The former defensive lineman aspired to play in the NFL but upon graduation in 1995 joined the Stampeders before being released from the practice roster. 

Afterward, Johnson followed in the footsteps of his late Canadian-born father, Rocky and entered professional wrestling. He joined WWE in 1996, becoming The Rock, before embarking on a successful acting career.

Garcia, Johnson's ex-wife, said the CFL and XFL share similar values on and off the field.

"The wonderful thing (is) Dwayne's personal experience is symptomatic of what lives in the CFL and we already seek those things out," said Garcia, the XFL's chairwoman. "I'd say everything aligned beautifully.

"If you're looking at Dwayne and myself and the career we've built, it always has a global reach, community reach, an expansive entertainment media reach. This collaboration, this dialogue, fits right into that approach."

Johnson wasn't available for comment Wednesday. But later on his Instagram account, he cited, "it's funny how sometimes life comes full circle.

"Wherever it all leads, I can tell you this one is personal to me and is driven by all my passion -- because being cut by the CFL was the greatest thing that happened," Johnson wrote. "It set me on a path that years later would lead me right back to the league.

"As an owner who's had his hands in the dirt -- my loyalty will always lie with the players and fans. I'll keep you posted as our XFL/CFL discussions unfold. I got your back. So yes, the CFL changed my life, in ways I never could've imagined."

On her Instagram account Wednesday, Garcia posted a picture of herself holding a cup of coffee beside a bookshelf that featured a CFL book and XFL football. Below, it said: "The perfect cup of coffee when you're about to shake things up."

Ambrosie, Garcia and XFL president/CEO Jeffrey Pollack were emphatic that nothing has been decided and all options will be examined. They also agreed that any talk of a merger involving the two leagues was very premature.

"This is about possibility and potential in a wonderful form,' Pollack said. "That's a nice place to start a conversation from.

"There's still a lot to discuss and explore and learn about each other but we're excited to be in these conversations and excited to see where it goes."

Ambrosie said he planned to bring the CFL Players' Association up to speed on the talks Wednesday.

"We want to make sure they know we're just at the beginning of the beginning," Ambrosie said. "But we do want the players to know that this discussion is happening and that it's about growth.

"It's about opportunity and it's about entertainment and those things can benefit everybody."

CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay said while the union was apprised of the CFL-XFL talks, its primary focus remains the '21 season.

"Our commitment is to exhaust all solutions to get back to our jobs on the football field," Ramsay tweeted. "The growth of football is something we support as your members earn their living playing this great game."

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Matt Nichols hinted at confusion on social media.

"Does anyone know when camp is starting," he tweeted. "Or do I need to ask @TheRock?''

If the CFL and XFL look at how to play games together or against each other, there'll be no shortage of challenges to overcome, given the many differences between the Canadian and American games. And there'd also be the question of if, or how, the CFL ratio (at least 21 Canadians on a roster, including a minimum of seven starters) would apply.

The CFL expanded into the U.S. between 1993-95, adding franchises in Baltimore, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Calif., Shreveport, La., Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn. But the experiment — which included American clubs not requiring to have Canadians on their rosters — ended after the '95 season with the Grey Cup-champion Baltimore Stallions relocating to Montreal.

Aligning with a huge star like Johnson would undoubtedly interest the CFL and its quest to appeal to a younger demographic. The last time it had such star power was in 1991 when Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, actor John Candy and hockey great Wayne Gretzky purchased the Toronto Argonauts, then signed Raghib (Rocket) Ismail en route to winning the Grey Cup that year.

But three years later, McNall, Gretzky and Candy's estate sold the Argos to TSN and Labatt Breweries for $4.7 million.

"It's less about why is this the time … and more about where we both were at as we're looking to grow and expand our league," Garcia said. "Take advantage of entertainment properties, which communities, create an advantages for athletes and players in the game of gridiron football.

"It was a like-minded process of two leagues coming together to discuss."

Not all CFL supporters shared that sentiment Wednesday. Many took to social media to voice their displeasure.

"I'm going to bet on optimism, I'm going to bet on all of those fans who we love that want to see us grow our game," Ambrosie said. "They know that in our biggest markets we need to re-energize. 

"I'm going to bet on the idea they're going to see the passion Dany, Jeffrey and Dwayne and their partners at RedBird have for the CFL and what we represent. I'm just going to bet that the best of our fans is going to surface here and they're going to say, 'Great. The CFL is talking to these world-class operators who can help us realize the full potential of football in Canada.'"

The XFL has enjoyed a brief, troubled history.

It was first introduced in February 2000 by wrestling executive Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol, then the chairman of NBC Sports, as a fun alternative to the NFL. But the league lasted only one year (2001).

McMahon resurrected the XFL in 2020 with eight teams. But it ceased operations after just five weeks of play due to the COVID-19 pandemic and filed for bankruptcy April 13.

The league has always had a CFL flavour to it. In 2001, longtime CFL head coach/GM Jim Barker was the offensive co-ordinator of the champion L.A. Xtreme, its roster featuring quarterback Scott Milanovich — who would become a head coach in the CFL with Toronto and Edmonton — and longtime punter Noel Prefontaine.

And in 2020, it had two former CFL head coaches with Tampa Bay's Marc Trestman (Grey Cup champion head coach with Montreal and Toronto) and Houston's June Jones (Hamilton).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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