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Coming soon to U.S. TV: Thursday Night Football, Canadian-style.

The Canadian Football League will start its season in June with five U.S. teams, as the Memphis Mad Dogs and Birmingham Barracudas mark their debuts. It's the league's third, and most ambitious, season in the U.S.

The CFL has firmed up its TV schedule and revamped sponsorship offerings, creating opportunities for marketers on both sides of the border.

"A more promotional approach that sells product" will help set CFL sponsorships apart from their National Football League counterparts, said Geoff Fardy, marketing director of the Toronto-based CFL. "We've never been this organized before ..... and we're out there selling in a different way now."

For the first time, the 13-team league has regularly scheduled TV slots-on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The CFL will get its most extensive U.S. coverage yet. ESPN will carry 29 games, including two playoff matchups and the championship Grey Cup; two Canadian networks will air 75 games between them.

In sponsorships, the league is looking to sign its first presenting sponsor and several associate sponsors. The single presenting sponsor, at about $1 million a year, must cover the entire league, but associate sponsors can now choose to back the U.S. or Canadian divisions, or both.

The CFL wants to have no more than four associate sponsors, at $430,000 for U.S. and Canada combined or $250,000 for the U.S. alone.

Among Canadian associate sponsors are Chrysler, Canada Post, Visa and the Brick Warehouse funiture outlet.

The league also wants to have no more than six supplier sponsorships; fees range from about $35,000 to $165,000 annually, plus product. Air Canada is a supplier sponsor, as well as seven U.S. companies including Starter sports clothing, equipment maker Riddell, Neuman gloves and Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade.

Sponsors enjoy varying levels of TV, radio, print, on-site promotions, public relations, player appearances and direct mail.

A U.S. sponsorship company is expected to come on board June 1.

Having joined the league this spring, Mr. Fardy wants to bring partners into the huddle with three-year deals, something new for the CFL.

"We've been looked at in the past as being too jumpy-one sponsor one year, another the next," he said.

Promoting the Canadian game in the U.S. comes down to three letters, Mr. Fardy said. LWF-longer, wider and faster than the NFL (see related chart). Canadian football fields are longer and wider, with much deeper end zones; the team with the ball only gets three downs to move it 10 yards, and the backfield can move before the snap-this makes for fast play relying heavily on passing.

Promotions will be key in servicing sponsors, Mr. Fardy promised. Visiting a sponsor's retail outlet, for example, could earn customers free tickets for local CFL games and a chance to win seats at the Grey Cup. A quarterback challenge is in the works, with high school and other amateur QBs trying to put the pigskin through a sponsoring tire marketer's product.

In Chicago, Wilson Sporting Goods sees its new CFL supplier sponsorship as a natural extension of market presence, said Alan Davenport, team sports international manager.

Supplying about 85% of official footballs for high school, college and professional leagues, Wilson is getting "good reaction" in the U.S. to its new retail line of CFL footballs, he said. Packaged in red and white with the CFL logo, the balls are primarily selling in league cities, Mr. Davenport said, but there's also interest in other parts of the country.

Continued expansion in the U.S. could bring a name change to the league. Possibilities include the Continental Football League and Canadian-American Football League.

League divisions have been realigned into North and South this year to encourage a Canadian-American Grey Cup meeting, as happened last season. More than 1.3 million viewers in the U.S. and 2.6 million in Canada watched as the Vancouver-based B.C. Lions narrowly beat the Baltimore club in the highest rated Grey Cup ever telecast.



HISTORY: Game's first national organizing body established 1890, later evolved into CFL. Sacramento (Calif.) Gold Miners first U.S. expansion team in 1993, since relocated to San Antonio.

U.S. TEAMS: San Antonio Texans, Shreveport (La.) Pirates, Memphis (Tenn.) Mad Dogs, Birmingham (Ala.) Barracudas, Baltimore Football Club (unofficial name CFLs after original name Colts judged NFL property). Three more U.S. teams for 1996 season-the Jackson (Miss.) Posse and two others as yet unannounced.

SEASON: Exhibition play mid-June to Grey Cup Nov. 19. (NFL pre-season begins early August.)

AUDIENCE: 2.6 million fans attended CFL games last season, 3.2 million fans projected this season. (NFL attendance set a record of more than 14 million last year.)

THE GAME: 12 players on field for CFL team (vs. 11 in NFL); CFL field is 110 yards long, with midfield at 55 yard line (vs. 100 yards for NFL, with midfield at 50); field is 65 yards wide (vs. about 53 for NFL); end zone is 20 yards deep (vs. 10 for NFL); three downs (vs. four).

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