CFL Pass

Stu Cowan: Clifford Starke hasn't given up on purchasing the Alouettes

The ongoing As the Alouettes Turn soap opera took another twist Wednesday when Clifford Starke announced he has made a new proposal to purchase the team.

The chairman of Hampstead Private Capital first made public his interest in purchasing the Alouettes in April, adding he hoped to buy them before the CFL season starts. The season kicks off Friday when the Alouettes play the Eskimos in Edmonton (9 p.m., TSN, RDS, TSN 690 Radio), but there’s still no new owner.

The longer this ownership saga drags on, the worse it looks for the Alouettes, the CFL — which owns the team after taking over from Robert and Andrew Wetenhall — and league commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

The Alouettes — and/or the CFL — left head coach Mike Sherman in charge for the full training camp and two pre-season games before dumping him last Saturday and giving the job to offensive coordinator Khari Jones on an interim basis. GM Kavis Reed said it was a mutual decision between Sherman and the team, but the former coach denied that when speaking with Montreal Gazette colleague Herb Zurkowsky, saying: “I don’t agree with the decision, but it wasn’t mine to make.”

This is becoming more like a Gong Show than a soap opera.

Starke was one of three Montreal businessmen who made their interest in buying the Alouettes public, along with Vincenzo Guzzo — the president and CEO of Cinémas Guzzo — and former Alouettes player Éric Lapointe. Starke later dropped out of contention, Guzzo got fed up with Ambrosie’s handling of the situation and lost interest, and Lapointe also announced his group was out. It has been reported the Alouettes lost $50 million since Wetenhall purchased the club in 1997, including $12.5 million last season, when they had a 5-13 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year. The previous debt does not look like it will be an issue in the deal with the CFL for whoever ends up buying the team.

This is a club that has obviously been badly mismanaged on and off the field in recent years and needs a new owner with a solid financial plan and new management team.

The CFL is believed to be negotiating with only one group, which could be brothers Peter and Jeff Lenkov, who grew up in Chomedey and live in California. Peter, 55, is a Hollywood producer/writer, while Jeff, 53, is an NHL player agent based in Los Angeles.

“We can talk Als when the time is right,” Peter Lenkov told Montreal Gazette colleague Bill Brownstein in a text message this week, adding he and his brother would be able to enhance the entertainment value at Molson Stadium.

Maybe they can, but having a California-based owner of a CFL team brings back memories of when Bruce McNall owned the Toronto Argonauts, along with minority owners Wayne Gretzky and the late actor John Candy. The Argonauts won the 1991 Grey Cup in McNall’s first year, but finished last in the East Division the next two seasons. McNall’s group sold the club to TSN and Labatt Brewing for $4.7 million following the 1993 season after losing a reported $14.5 million.

This season is already starting to look like a lost cause for the Alouettes, unless they can suddenly start winning games despite all the dysfunction. Getting a new owner in place sooner rather than later would give the ownership time to start putting its plan in place, beginning from the business standpoint and then making whatever necessary changes on the field and in football operations later. It would also give fans — and players — a sense of hope for the future.

If the CFL is indeed only negotiating with the Lenkovs, that doesn’t necessarily mean a deal will get done and that’s where Starke comes in. In a phone interview Wednesday, the 35-year-old said the new proposal he presented to Ambrosie this week commits $35 million to the project of turning the Alouettes around and also shows his proof of funds. Starke was an investment banker and made his fortune in the pharmaceutical business, including medical cannabis.

Starke grew up in Montreal as a huge Alouettes fan and his best friend was Brad Smith, the son of former Alouettes president Larry Smith. Starke used to watch games sitting with the Smith family during the team’s glory years, when the Alouettes had 105 consecutive sellouts at Molson Stadium, advanced to the Grey Cup eight times in 11 years — starting in 2000 — and won three championships, the last in 2010. That was Larry Smith’s final season as team president.

Starke said he would own 90 per cent of the Alouettes in his new proposal and has other wealthy investors, adding he has a strong board of governors set to put in place. There’s also good reason to believe Larry Smith would play a prominent role.

Can you think of a better person at this point to help turn the Alouettes around?

“We’re serious about this,” Starke said. “We strengthened our bid for them to review. Until there’s a definitive signing announced (with another owner) I’m still going to try and get the team.

“We’re trying to do something good here.”