The Montreal Machine were very briefly Montreal’s team. For a couple of years they were able to provide a solution to a football void in the city. They proved quite popular doing just that too.
If you were to ask who was Montreal’s football team now you would point to the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. A team that traces their origins back to 1946. However there have been gaps, and it was because of one of these gaps that the Machine were able to have some success.
After the failures of the Montreal Concordes and the second iteration of the Alouettes there was a hiatus from 1988-1995. That hiatus was an opportunity for the Machine to step into.
The Machine existed for 2 years, playing 2 seasons, from 1991-1992. They were a charter member of the World League of American Football (WLAF), later NFL Europe, which was backed by the NFL. This was a developmental league for the NFL and lasted from 1991 to 2007 in various formats.
Now of course the CFL has the Alouettes once more. Formed from the ashes of the Baltimore Stallions they are well embedded and their next season will be the 25th for this iteration of the Als.
The Montreal Machine: A box office hit
Although the Machine were a lackluster 6-14 over two seasons in the WLAF, they still did well at the turnstiles.
Whilst most of the North American clubs struggled with ticket sales after some initial interest, the Machine did pretty well. Playing out of Olympic Stadium their first ever home game was on April 1st 1991. 53,238 fans were on hand to see them lose to the Barcelona Dragons 34-10. That was a record crowd for the league.
Montreal played to another crowd of above 50,000 in the first WLAF game played in Birmingham . That would prove to be the high water mark for the Birmingham team as 52,942 fans turned out. Interest was soon lost to college football and by week 4 the Fire had a crowd of just 8,114!
But that first Birmingham game was one of the highlights of the Machine’s two year existence as they won by a score of 20-5. A game punctuated by Jerry Lee Lewis playing Great Balls of Fire at halftime. Not to mention the crowd being twice what had been anticipated and the game being delayed because of that.
By the end of the 1991 season the Montreal Machine team had averaged 31,882 fans for their home games. They had even pulled in almost 35,000 for a home game during the NHL playoffs whilst the Montreal Canadiens were involved.
By the end of a 2-8 1992 season that average had dropped to 25,254 per game. Still, a very reasonable number for a developmental league. And there are CFL teams right now that would be happy with those numbers.
100 Yard football
As the WLAF was a developmental league for the NFL they were playing the 100 yard version of the game.
This meant that the Montreal Machine were the first pro football team in Montreal to be playing the 100 yard game since the Montreal Beavers of the Continental Football League . The Beavers were a minor league team who had been in town for 1966 and 1967.
The 3 down game is ingrained into the national psyche. Yet despite this, the 4 Down, 100 yard game playing Machine were, as we have seen, quite popular. So how did they do this? Especially as they weren’t hugely successful on the field. They tapped into local identity.
A Francophone Machine
It took a long time for the Montreal Alouettes to name their first ever Francophone Head Coach. The fact it didn’t work out as Jacques Chapdelaine led them to a 7-10 record doesn’t diminish how popular that idea could be.
So when the Montreal Machine set out with team President Roger Dore, GM Gordon Cahill and Head Coach Jacques Dussault who were all French-speaking Quebec natives it gave them a head start in marketing.
Being able to market the team from the top down with a French Speaking leadership meant they could tap into a local sentiment. As was noted at the time being able to tap into an 85 per cent French speaking Quebec population was a huge boon for the team.
On top of that the Machine were hitting the 18-35 demographic. So everything was in place for success off the field.
The WLAF obviously had some imprint in Montreal too. The 1992 World Bowl was played there. A healthy 43,789 fans saw the Sacramento Surge defeat the Orlando Thunder 21-17 on a fourth quarter comeback. This was the highest attendance for a World Bowl game not to feature a team from the country it was held in as a participant.
In an ironic twist as Montreal lost their World League team, the World Bowl winners from their hosting of the game would join the CFL as the Sacramento Gold Miners for the next two seasons.
Beaten by the ratings
Whilst Montreal were pretty successful the same could not be said for all of the North American franchises. Attendance and television ratings on ABC and the USA Network were a disappointment in the United States.
The latter particularly signaled the death knell for the WLAF. NFL owners opted to shutter the league after two seasons in 1992.
That wasn’t the end for the league. It would return in 1995 as a Europe only entity. By 1998 it had become NFL Europe. By 2005 the league had 5 German teams and the Amsterdam Admirals.
The final game in league history, World Bowl XV was played in front of 48,125 fans in Frankfurt, Germany. Over the years the league did an excellent job as a developmental player pathway to the NFL.
None of which mattered to the Montreal Machine and their supporters of course. The league’s success was not their success. But, for two years, they were very briefly Montreal’s team.
Banner Image: Montreal Machine mini helmet. Image from worthpoint.com