Stars, Stripes and 90's Superstars: Ranking The US Expansion Era CFL Teams

By Chris Lawton

It seems like every league has its ups and downs. Even a behemoth like the NFL has seen teams fade away over the years. There is often a nostalgia for those lost teams. A mythology that builds around them.

Of the 14 teams listed from the original season in 2020, only 2 survive. But teams like the Akron Pros, Dayton Triangles and Canton Bulldogs still echo down the years.

Yet if we turn to the CFL and look at the league from its inception in 1958 we could be forgiven for being slightly confused. For in 1958, as in 2023, there were nine teams in the league. Those teams were situated in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Calgary, BC, Hamilton, Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. Which means there are franchises in exactly the same places in the CFL as there were 62 years ago.

But the league has seen teams come and go. At no time was that more dramatic than in the 1990s during a three-year US expansion period. Some say the expansion failed, while others say the expansion fees from it saved the league. Whatever the case there is a definite nostalgia around those US expansion teams.

Which begs the questions, which was best, which was worst and how do they compare to each other? Everyone loves a list to argue over so her is my take on that subject ranked from worst to first.

8: Miami Manatees

Franchise length: 0 Seasons Championships: 0, All-time Record: n/a

The organization that never was. Incredibly the CFL considered putting a team in a city with an existing NFL team. That is because the idea of a Miami team, the Manatees, was mooted. In a city that already had the Dolphins and the former national champion college ball Hurricanes to get behind, the CFL seriously considered putting down a team and getting them to play at the Orange Bowl.

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. This 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.

An exhibition at the Orange Bowl between the Baltimore Stallions and the Birmingham Barracudas drew an announced 20,250 spectators. After which 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 ended abruptly 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 doubtful that even a successful CFL franchise would have competed financially at that time with an NFL playoff regular.

As they never took the field, this team has to be the least successful US expansion team by default!

7: Memphis Mad Dogs

Franchise Length: 1 season 1995, Championships: 0 All-time record: 9-9

Memphis was born into the third and final season of the US expansion period, in 1995. To start that season the CFL added the Mad Dogs in Memphis and the Barracudas in Birmingham.

Memphis looked to be on a good footing in terms of ownership. Headed up as they were by Fred Smith of FedEx. And they made some good moves, bringing in Damon Allen at QB, and having Adam Rita on the coaching staff for example.

Head Coach meanwhile was a man with buckets of experience. But not of the CFL. Franklin Cullen “Pepper” Rodgers had a long coaching career in the college game. Plus, he had coached the Memphis Showboats in the original USFL, so you could see why they might sign him. But he never really got to grips with the 3 Down game or its rules. Not to mention decrying the idea of selling the Mad Dogs and the league in Memphis stating, “Half the People Here Couldn’t Even Spell Saskatchewan”. Not exactly ideal.

What Memphis had really wanted an NFL team. They had bid in 93 but lost out to the Carolina and Jacksonville franchises. When that potential Hound Dogs NFL franchise fell through and the owners turned to the CFL, for a lot of local fans this was just making do out of a bad situation.

The Mad Dogs played in a 62,000-seat stadium (the Liberty Bowl). 14,278 turned out for their first ever game – not a good look. They managed to crack 20,000 but once college football season hit their attendances tanked.

This was a team that was there for the last season of the failed US expansion. A team that the locals never really took to, and that had no huge cultural impact.

They did well to have a .500 season in their lone year amid all that apathy.

6: Shreveport Pirates

Franchise length: 2 Seasons 1994 & 1995, Championships: 0, All-time record: 8-28

The only reason the Pirates are ranked higher than the Mad Dogs is that they existed one season longer. Meaning they weren’t just there for the death knell like Memphis were.

However, the Pirates lose points on ownership alone. Bernard and Lonie Glieberman had owned the Ottawa Rough Riders for 2 chaotic years, including threatening to move the team out of Canada. Them buying a US expansion franchise was something of a compromise for the league.

To no-one’s surprise the Glieberman’s ownership was dysfunctional, and the team lost their first 14 games. A 3-15 season was followed by a slightly improved 5-13 in 1995.

Attendances weren’t too bad in 1994 but fell away in 1995. It’s not like there are many people mourning the loss of this franchise.

They do however still have a place in the CFL record books to this day. Their 14-game losing streak to start the season in 1994 remains the longest losing streak to start a season in CFL history.

5: Las Vegas Posse

Franchise length: 1 Season 1994, Championships: 0, All-time record: 5-13

Say what you like about the Posse. From poor attendances to a decimation of the Canadian National Anthem, they had a cultural impact. To this day they have support. Plus, they get bonus points for having had NFLUK community ambassador Jeff Reinebold on the coaching staff, meaning he can share some great stories of his time there.

The Las Vegas Raiders are Sin City’s football team now. The OaklandLos AngelesOakland, Las Vegas Raiders started playing in Las Vegas in 2020.

But long before that came the CFL and the Posse. They may not have been too successful, but the CFL’s Las Vegas Posse were the first attempt by a major pro sports league to site a football team in the city.

After the CFL came the XFL and the Las Vegas Outlaws. Like the Posse they weren’t around long (one season) but have a cultural footprint still.

The Posse will always be remembered as their penultimate home game against Winnipeg had an announced attendance of 2,350 – the lowest in CFL history.

In 2017 the CFL did an April Fool joke on posse throwback jerseys. Judging by the reaction people would have LOVED it!

4: Birmingham Barracudas

Franchise length: 1 Season 1995, Championships: 0, All-time record: 10-8

Like Memphis, this was a team that was there for the last season of the failed US expansion. In fact, they were the last US based team to be awarded a franchise.

A CFL franchise was awarded to Birmingham in 1995 as an expansion team. Owner Art Williams said he wanted a nickname for the team that would “scare the spit out of people”.

For a landlocked team Barracudas remains an odd choice scary or otherwise!

The ‘Cudas had the highly experienced Jack Pardee as head coach. Pardee had coached in the WFL, USFL and NFL up to that point.

A proponent of the Run and Shoot O, Pardee got two-time All-CFL quarterback Matt Dunigan signed as a free agent to lead the ‘Cudas high-scoring offense.

The Barracudas debuted at 75,000-seat Legion Field on July 15, 1995, They beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 51-28 in front of 31,185 fans.

Crowds remained strong for the ensuing home games. 25,321 turned out for a 24-14 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders and 30,729 for a 36-8 loss to the Baltimore Stallions.

Despite being high scoring and competitive within the CFL, there was something the Barracudas could not compete with. The coming of the college season.

Once the Auburn and University of Alabama college schedules got under way the Barracuda’s attendances plummeted.

The Barracudas made the Grey Cup playoffs with a 10-8 record. But Matt Dunigan broke the index finger on this throwing hand in the season’s penultimate game. They lost in the playoffs 52-9 to the San Antonio Texans in their last ever game.

3: San Antonio Texans

Franchise length: 1 Season 1995, Championships: 0, All-time record: 12-6

The Texans were another one season wonder. But they separate from other one season teams as a continuation from the Sacramento Gold Miners (below).

After a 4-5 start, the Texans reeled off eight victories in their final nine games to finish with a 12-6 record. The Texans were a fun team to watch averaging 35 points per game, second best in the CFL. They made it within one game of the Grey Cup in 1995 but lost out to the Baltimore Stallions.

The Texans averaged 15,855 fans for nine regular season home games, which ranked 11th among the CFL’s 13 franchises in 1995.

Between the Texans and Gold Miners, owner Fred Anderson was purported to have lost $14 million in three years. He may even have come back for more, but his family intervened as he was ill. He passed away a year later. Anderson had been a fondly admired owner in league circles.

2: Sacramento Gold Miners

Franchise length: 2 seasons 1993 & 1994, Championships: 0, All-time record: 15-20-1

Could you argue that the CFL still exists as we know it because of the Gold Miners? It’s one view.

The Gold Miners were the first American team to play in the CFL. They were also the first American team to host a game against a CFL team. (A game the lost 38-36 to the Calgary Stampeders on the 17th of July 1993). Finally, they were the first American team to win a CFL league game. (A game in which they defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders 37-26 on the 24th of July 1993.)

The Sacramento Gold Miners were built from the former World League of American Football (WLAF) franchise, the Sacramento Surge. The surge existed for 2 years, playing 2 seasons, from 1991-1992. They had been a charter member of the WLAF. That team that had posted an 11-9 record, finishing 1992 8-2 and going on to win the 1992 World Bowl.  A game played in Canada, in Montreal.

For many the Gold Miners were a continuation of the Surge as some of the personnel of the WLAF franchise moved into the CFL. Meaning there was another first here. Because the Surge were the first and only American team to win the World Bowl, (the WLAF and later NFL Europe championship game).

6-10 was no disgrace for an expansion team and they showed flashes. Sacramento’s 1993 average attendance of 16,979 fans per game was the lowest in the 9-team CFL however and that was a worry.

The ’94 season saw the Gold Miners joined by US based franchises in Baltimore, Las Vegas, and Shreveport. Sacramento’s 1994 average attendance of 14,226 was 11th in the league though, stronger only than the disaster happening for the Posse.

By being the first expansion team, going 6-12 (an expansion record at the time), and being stable off the field, the Gold Miners were pioneers who opened the doors for others to join.

That pioneering year in ’93 led to more money coming into the CFL via further expansion. They helped keep the league afloat, which is why the Gold Miners rank this high.

The Gold Miners had shown improvement and gone 15-18-1 over two CFL seasons in Sacramento. Despite early optimism however heavy financial losses and stadium issues led to the Gold Miners moving on.

1: Baltimore Stallions

Franchise length: 2 Seasons 1994 & 1995, Championships: 1, All-time record: 27-9

There was only ever going to be one team at the top of this list. The stallions were only in the CFL for two seasons but they had a huge impact. Appearing in the Grey Cup game in both seasons of their existence, losing to BC in 1994 and winning it all in 1995.

Arguably two franchises exist today because of the Baltimore Stallions. The success that the Stallions had in Baltimore was a demonstration of the following football could garner there. The NFL took note.

A few months after the championship game Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The Baltimore Ravens were born out of that Browns team. You could easily argue that without the Stallions’ success the Ravens may not have arrived.

The other franchise? The Montreal franchise went into ‘hiatus’ between 1988 & 1995. The return came as the Stallions left Baltimore to the NFL, relocated to Montreal, and relaunched the Alouettes franchise.

To this day the Als do not recognise the Stallions as part of official team history. But when they did return, they were hugely successful (176-93-1 from 1996 to 2012, appearing in 8 Grey Cup games and winning 3). And the foundation of that success was built out of the now defunct 1995 Grey Cup champion Baltimore team that moved players and staff into Montreal.

In 1994 the city of Baltimore had been without a pro football team for 11 years. There had been a chance to change all that when they got the chance to bid for an NFL expansion franchise. The NFL chose to put teams in Jacksonville & Carolina instead. The NFL commissioner of the time, Paul Tagliabue, suggested Baltimore should build a museum with the money it had set aside for a stadium.

Fans in Baltimore were not happy about that. That perfect storm allowed a CFL team to come in and work its way into the affections of the football fans in town.

The cherry on the cake of continuity was going to be in the name. They were introduced to the city of Baltimore as the ‘Baltimore CFL Colts’. They sold 13,000 season tickets within 4 days of announcing the name. However, the NFL stepped in  and obtained an injunction against the use of the name ‘Colts’, a name still retained by the Indianapolis Colts who had fled Baltimore in the night all those years before. That the NFL had appropriated that name from a defunct AAFC team was irrelevant. Thus Baltimore found themselves facing a legal injunction against using the name ‘Colts’ hours before their first season was set to begin.

Still, most locals still called the Baltimore Football Club the Colts anyway. At home games the PA would introduce them as “Your Baltimore CFL…”and the crowd would shout ‘Colts’ before he finished with.” Football team”.

The Stallions were hugley successful on the field too. In 1994 they set a new record for an expansion team and went 12-6, making the playofs an ultimately losing in the Grey Cup 26-23 to BC.

In 1995 they were beasts. Tearing through their season to post a 15-3 record before becmoing the only non Canadian Franchise ever to win the Grey Cup defeating Calgary 37-20.

As we have seen that was it for CFL football in Baltimore. It may have been a brief encounter but it was one infused with success which is why they sit at nuber one on this list. 



Chris originally started following the NFL with the ‘first wave’ of fans when it was shown on Channel 4 in the 1980’s. He has been a keen supporter of the Miami Dolphins since 1983. Chris first encountered the CFL in 2016 and instantly fell in love with the Canadian game. He has been writing about the CFL 2017. Chris has a degree in history, postgraduate degree in librarianship and can be found on twitter as @CFLfanUK