Lions for sale! Get them while they're 2-7!

Matt Sekeres has an interesting piece in today's Globe and Mail on the potential sale of the B.C. Lions. Sekeres makes sure to point out that any sale is unlikely to be completed until after the Lions host the 2011 Grey Cup (thanks to the $5 million in expected profits from that, which would add a hefty chunk of change to the purchase price), but it's noteworthy that there are as many as three distinct potential local ownership groups that could be in play.

That's quite a contrast from the last time the team was sold in 1996, when no local owners were interested and David Braley had to step in from across the country. He's done well with the team over the years, but now owns the Toronto Argonauts as well (which isn't as much of a problem as you might think) and has new duties as a senator, so it's understandable that he might want to pass off the Lions.

The interest in buying the team demonstrates just how far the Lions have come since 1996, though. Yes, they were only two years away from their 1994 Grey Cup victory, but Braley's takeover was actually the second that happened that season. In March, Bill Comrie sold the team to a group of local businessmen headed by Nelson Skalbania, most famous for signing and then selling Wayne Gretzky, going bankrupt several times and destroying the Montreal Alouettes of the 1980s. His tenure in Vancouver went about as well, with him losing control of the team thanks to debts only five months after purchasing them.

Those Lions were inept on the field too. They signed Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware as their starting quarterback, who was Chris Leak before Chris Leak; a talented NCAA quarterback who couldn't make the adjustments necessary to succeed in the CFL. That was remedied by bringing in Damon Allen in Week Five, but the Lions were already 0-4 by then and the season was pretty much a lost cause. The team continued to struggle and made more headlines for the mismanagement of their owners than for anything they did on the field, causing attendance to plummet. By the time Braley stepped in in November after a long and futile search for a local owner, buying the team wasn't a particularly attractive business proposition.

That isn't the case any more, and that's largely thanks to what Braley's done over the years. He gave them off-field stability and put the right people in place to turn things around. Adam Rita found success at first, and Greg Mohns led the 8-10 2000 Lions to a Grey Cup victory, but the key change was the hiring of the legendary Bob Ackles as president and CEO in 2002. Ackles famously got his start as the Lions' water boy back in their first season, 1953. He went on to serve as their director of football management, assistant general manager and general manager before taking key jobs in the NFL and XFL. He returned to B.C. in a business role, but his football background helped him to carry that out, and he brought the Lions back to relevance in B.C. through reaching out to fans and the corporate community. He also played a crucial role in the hiring of Wally Buono as coach and general manager in 2003, which paved the way for their return to CFL prominence on the field and their Grey Cup victory in 2006. Until his death in 2008, Ackles was heavily involved in the Lions' transition from one of the CFL's weakest franchises to one of its key properties.

One of the groups reportedly interested in purchasing the Lions is closely linked to Ackles and portrays itself as the heir to its legacy. That's the group led by Dennis Skulsky. Skulsky, the former president and CEO of the Canwest newspaper chain, left that job in March amid the chain's bankruptcy proceedings. He soon took over as the Lions' team president, which he told The Vancouver Sun was "a dream job". Skulsky has been prominent in B.C. circles for quite some time as the former publisher of both the Sun and The Province, and he was also involved in forming the original "Waterboys" group of businessmen Ackles put together to support the team in 2002. He was the chair of B.C.'s 2005 Grey Cup committee, and is pictured in that role above (at the far right) with Braley (centre) and then-CFL commissioner Tom Wright (left) presenting the Grey Cup to then-Vancouver mayor-elect Sam Sullivan. Skulsky's group has plenty of history with the franchise and would represent significant continuity from the Braley regime.

That doesn't mean they'll take over, though. If this turns into a bidding war, the edge might go to the deep-pocketed Aquilini family, which also owns the NHL's Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks appear to be making ridiculous profits, and those have grown over the years. The Aquilinis bought the team in 2005 for $207 million. In 2007, Forbes ranked the team ninth in the league in franchise value ($211 million) with an annual operating income of $12.8 million (all figures U.S.). In the 2007-08 season, Vancouver was making the third-most in the league on ticket revenue per game ($1.4 million). Last year, Forbes again ranked the Canucks ninth in the league, but their franchise value had grown to $239 million and their annual operating income had increased to $20.3 million. The National Post also reported yesterday that the Canucks have increased the cost of their cheapest tickets by $10 over last year (to $65 for non-premium games, $85 for premium games), making their low-end tickets the NHL's most expensive. All that suggests that the Aquilinis can outbid anyone else for the Lions if they really want to; they also might have extra incentive to pay a premium price for the Lions, as that would give them extra control over professional sports in Vancouver (with the MLS-bound Vancouver Whitecaps and single-A baseball Vancouver Canadians as their main rivals).

The wild card in the bidding may well be Hadi Abassi, a Nanaimo businessman who owns the junior football Vancouver Island Raiders as well as a lacrosse team and roof/window truss companies. Sekeres wrote a fascinating piece on Abassi earlier this year, headlined "The George Steinbrenner of junior football". It's well worth a read, but I maintain that Al Davis might have been a more apt comparison given the name of Abassi's franchise, his renegade status and the way he's moved the team around. That story reports that Abassi's roof and window businesses make $15 million a year, so he may have the deep pockets necessary to compete for the Lions, and he certainly has a love of football. He's a controversial figure that plenty have criticized, but Philip Wolf of the Nanaimo Daily News wrote an interesting piece after the Sekeres story relating some of the background behind opposition to Abassi. Regardless of who eventually wins the bidding war, Abassi's involvement in this will certainly make the situation much more interesting.

It's also fascinating that so much interest is swirling around a team that was 2-7 heading into this afternoon's game against Toronto. Yes, I wrote last week that the Lions have more reason for optimism than any other 2-7 team, and yes, they beat Montreal last week, but that still doesn't make them an elite franchise. Their attendance numbers this year at the new Empire Field have been decent, but not outstanding, so it's not like buying the club will automatically be a license to print money either. It shows how far the Lions have come since Braley's takeover that three different groups are interested in buying them even at what's probably one of their lower points since 2002. Despite the limited on-field success this year, they're still on solid footing at the moment, and that speaks well for both the club and the league.

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