For years, David Braley walked the tightrope that is the Canadian Football League, keeping it alive while strangling it just a little, all at the very same time.
The truth is, he couldn’t help himself, either way.
Braley’s CFL life was an uncomfortable balancing act for the league and not necessarily for the contradiction that he was. No one ever owned more parts or put more of his own money into the CFL than the self-made Braley, while inadvertently and sometimes single-mindedly preventing the league from flourishing.
The owner of the B.C. Lions, former owner of the Toronto Argonauts, former owner of Hamilton Tiger-Cats, once privately bankrolling other Argo owners, former interim commissioner, former Senator, and a huge contributor to Canadian charities and institutions, passed away Monday at the age of 79. He was one of the most important figures in Canadian football and maybe Canadian sport the past half century, and certainly one of the most polarizing.
“Without him, there isn’t a league,” said David Bedford, former vice-president of the Argos. “This is a sad day for anyone who cares about Canadian football.”
The legacy of Braley, as remarkable and powerful, as hugely wealthy and occasionally petty, is legend around the CFL.
And in a lot of ways, challenging to explain, hard to champion even though current commissioner Randy Ambrosie described him as “our champion in every sense of the word … I will miss him.”
There is nothing quite like the CFL in professional sports anywhere. There are only nine teams and Braley has owned one-third of them. Between commissioners, he served as commissioner himself in 2002 and even went so far as to have his name inscribed on the league’s footballs. The commissioners who came before him and after him have understood what it is to answer to him or be called out by him.
There has long been an expression around the CFL. It’s called ‘being Brayley’d.’ It usually means being dressed down by the longtime owner and leader. He was known, on occasion, to begin a business meeting about league issues by first telling the people in the meeting he that he was the single largest owner of real estate in Ontario. He didn’t say it matter of factly. He said it to intimidate.
Or in his office, he was known for opening up a desk drawer, pulling out a bank book, and making sure those in the office saw the balance. “That’s how much I have,” he would say, as if to establish position based on his wealth. Braley, who never looked the part or dressed the part of wealthy man could be demanding and unreasonable and in the words of many “a bully.”
He did his business that way. Usually successfully. His way or the highway. And so much of it because he loved the CFL and that love was occasionally blind.
“It was heartbreaking to receive the call that David passed away,” tweeted legendary coach Wally Buono. “It’s a sad day for all the many people that David’s life touched … I love my friend.”
Braley owned the Argos from 2010 to 2015 and bankrolled their losses prior to his ownership. The good news was, he paid the bills, unlike many who came before him. The bad news was, that was about all he paid. No marketing. No advertising. No sales pitches of any kind.
Braley believed that winning sold tickets and marketing was throwing good money after bad. The Argos won the 100th Grey Cup in 2012. It didn’t affect future ticket sales in any real way. Braley never changed that view before eventually selling the team to Larry Tanenbaum.
Braley also understood the best way to break even as a CFL owner was to house Grey Cup games. He didn’t just win four Grey Cups as an owner. In a recent six-year period, Braley hosted four Grey Cups, two in Toronto, two in Vancouver. He certainly knew how to work the system.
In his time in the CFL, Braley fought against instituting a salary cap, fought against teams sharing information, fought for blacking out games on television. And in recent years, talked regularly about selling the Lions and getting out of the league.
“David left an indelible mark on the league,” said former commissioner Tom Wright. But he didn’t leave “an indelible mark on the people he dealt with.”
That was Braley, a pulling offensive lineman who didn’t care if he went offside or not. He just ploughed through people, figuratively knocking them down, working the only way he knew.
The CFL couldn’t have made it through all these years and all these tumultuous situations without him. And now he’s gone in this year without Canadian football.