Imagine a world where the CFL had expanded south of the border. Imagine that in that world the CFL actually considered putting a team in a city with an existing NFL team. Imagine they were going to place them in a fabled stadium where that NFL team and a National Championship college team had played out some of their glory days. Now stop trying to imagine it because it really – nearly – happened. It may sound improbable but that doesn’t make it any the less true or fascinating.
The banner picture above shows the view from the West End Zone of the Orange Bowl not all that long before it’s demolition in 2008. It’s surprising to think that some years before that, in a city that already had the Dolphins and the Hurricanes to get behind, the CFL seriously considered putting down a team and getting them to play here.
In the 1990’s then CFL commissioner Larry Smith had big ideas. He had a vision of a multi site North American CFL with teams in the USA and Canada. Today we have a nine team league consisting solely of Canadian based teams, so it seems fair to say that didn’t really work out.
The Baltimore Stallions were arguably the only truly successful expansion team for the CFL in the United States. Playing the 1994 and 1995 seasons they put together a 27-9 regular season and 5-1 playoff record. They even became the only US-based team to win the Grey Cup. At the other end of the scale were unsuccessful teams like the Shreveport Pirates who went 8-28 over two seasons before being disbanded. Yet even teams like Shreveport can claim to have been more successful that the team that never was – the Miami Manatees.
After the 95 season the Browns moved to Baltimore and the Ravens were born. It was seen as prudent to move much of the Stallions roster north to the newly re-formed Montreal Alouettes. No matter how successful a CFL expansion team the Stallions had been they did not want to compete directly with an NFL team.
During 1995, an investment group announced their intention to pursue an expansion franchise to begin play in the CFL in 1996. They had originally sought to relocate the defunct Las Vegas Posse franchise. At the same time the name Miami Manatees was officially submitted to the CFL.
Although previously stating that an expansion franchise would be preferred, the Miami ownership group sought to purchase the Las Vegas Posse after a series of deals to relocate to LA and Mississippi came to nothing. The cost of buying the Las Vegas franchise was estimated at $1.45 million as opposed to a $3 million expansion fee.
Following an exhibition at the Orange Bowl between the above mentioned Stallions and the Birmingham Barracudas drew an announced 20,250 spectators, the ownership group returned to attempts to relocate the Las Vegas franchise. Apparently the team needed to sell 20,000 to 25,000 tickets per game to be a viable business proposition.
All of this came to an abrupt end in the Spring of 1996 when the CFL suspended its U.S. operations thus ending the prospect of the CFL playing in Miami. Had the league gone ahead with American teams in the 1996 season, the Manatees would have been the only CFL team to compete directly in an NFL market. Whilst the Miami Dolphins were 8-8 in 1996 they went on to make it to the playoffs for the next five years in a row (1997-2001). It seems pretty doubtful that even a successful CFL franchise would have competed financially at that time with an NFL playoff regular.
Only one other pro football team was in Miami at this time. The gone and not particularly lamented Arena Football team the Hooters. The Arena League’s Sacramento Attack had switched coasts and become the Hooters in 1993. They were sponsored by the eponymous eatery. After three seasons, the deal with Hooters ended, and so did the teams tenure in Miami. They moved twice more before the franchise folded in 2001.
Of course, before even the Dolphins appeared in the 60’s Miami had a pro football team, all be it briefly, in town. The Miami Seahawks lasted one season in 1946 in the All-America Football Conference, they played in Burdine Stadium (or as it would become, the Orange Bowl). A tough schedule saw them post a 3-11 record before they relocated to, (wait for it), ….Baltimore.
In some ways the whole CFL expansion period has its own cult status with fans now. Fans were pretty into the idea of a CFL team wearing Las Vegas Posse throwback uniforms last season (even though they knew full well this was an April Fool’s joke by the league). It seems too that people have a great affection for some of the old USA based teams looks.
Not chief amongst these however is the Manatees look. A mash-up of a cheap copy of the Dolphins helmet logo idea coupled with, to some, an unappealing colour combination their kit has been referred to by one site as the ‘worst helmets and uniforms in history’. https://herosports.com/cfl/miami-manatees-had-awful-helmets-uniforms-aiai
When an expansion team does really well they can garner a lot of attention. In the NHL for instance the Las Vegas Golden Knights have had an extraordinary season and are deservedly being noticed. That doesn’t mean that some of the less successful expansion stories aren’t interesting too however. The Manatees never mad the field but I like to think that although they are gone, they are still not completely forgotten.