Like a pesky fly hovering around the picnic pie, Nelson Skalbania keeps darting down from Canada to irritate National Football League owners. From the offices of the NFL Players Association, however, he looks more like the bluebird of happiness.
"We'd love to see him continue to sign players, but I don't think it will last that long," said Ed Garvey, executive director of the player's association. "He doesn't have enough money to pay the kind of contracts he would have to in order to attract all the best free agents. And there just isn't enough money in the Canadian (Football) League for many other teams to join in."
Only two teams, Skalbania's in Montreal and rival Toronto, have sufficient funds to make an impact on the NFLL free-agent market. And, the CFL limits its nine teams to 15 U.S. players eacy, which doesn't add up to the free-wheeling market Garvey would like for his players.
Skalbania, who bought the Alouettes in February, hasn't officially signed Los Angeles quarterback Vince Ferragamo to a contract. Nor has he announced the terms of that pact. But it has been reported that Ferragamo has been offered $400,000 a year plus 25 cents for every customer over 40,000 that attend Montreal home games this year, to $700,000 a year for the next four seasons.
The Alouettes also say they are interested in reveiver Lynn Swann, a Pittsburgh free agent. And receiver Billy Johnson, a Houston free agent, wants to talk to them about a contract.
But Skalbania's biggest impact would occur if he signs running back Herschel Walker, the University of Georgia all-America. Walker, only a sophomore, said yesterday he planned to speak to Montreal representatives within the next week about playing in the CFL.
"That would be bad if they signed Walker," said Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard. "I don't think it would be good at all for the game. The way it is now, with only seniors eligible for the draft, is the way to do it."
If Walker mves north, it could signal more raids by Canadian teams on college undergraduates. If that happens, the NFL most likely would have to reconsider ilts draft rules.
Skalbania has spent $50 million to purchase six teams in four sports, and says he would love to add National Basketball Association, National Football League and major league baseball clubs to his collection.
The son of a carpenter and Polish immigrant, Skalbania, 42, lives in Vancouver, where he directs a financial empire based mostly on large real estate holdings. His Skalbania Enterprises is traded on the Canadian stock exchange, and includes stakes in oil, gas and a wide range of collectible items such as cars and paintings.
He is a self-described sports nut who has tried his hand at most games but never was very good at any. He once told a reporter that he has grown from the kid who chases foul balls so he could have a ball to play with to an owner of a baseball team who can buy all the balls he wants.
The foundation of Skalbania's sports empire if the Calgary Flames, the National Hockey League team he bought for $16 million last year and moved from Atlanta. He also owns the Alouettes, the Vancouver team in the Pacific Coast baseball league, the Calgary Boomers of the North American Soccer League and two minor league junior hockey clubs.
He once owned a team in the World Hockey Association and he came close to buying the seattle Mariners of baseball's American League for $12 million. He has seriously pursued an NBA franchise. Many see his present maneuverings with the Alouettes as a preliminary to applying for membership in the NFL, but Skalbania repeatedly denied that ambition before buying the team.
Skalbania was educated at the University of British Columbia and Cal Tech, where he earned a graduate degree in earthquake engineering. But the only rumblings he has charted since have been of his own creation, both in the business and financial worlds.
He is a man gifted with a gambler's guile and a creative intelligence that has served him well in the field of ad-lib financing. Perhaps his proudest achievement, as detailed by an official of the Flames, is the way he financed the purchase of that team making a $200,000 profit.
Of the $16 million purchase price, $1 million had to be a nonrefundable deposit. Another $6 million was due in 30 days and the remaining $9 million had to be paid 90 days later. He paid the deposit, then sold a Canadian brewery the radio and television promotional rights for $10 million, $6 million of which went in cash to the then-owners of the Flames.
For the remaining $9 million, he went to a group of Calgary oil people who were trying to buy the Flames and sold them 49 percent of the club. In exchange, he got his $1 million deposit back, plus $200,000, and the group pur $9 million into the bank to cover the final payment.
Credited with obtaining more publicity for the CFL than it has enjoyed in the last five years, Skalbania realizes that all this talk won't hurt ticket sales, already going at a record pace for a franchise that traditionally has done well at the gate. But he needs at least 40,000 a game to break even and the Alouettes averaged only 30,000 last year.
"This is unusual, the way he is upfront with the Montreal dealings," said one Canadian sportswriter. "But he had to get that franchise moving. What better way than through signing a big name or two?
"You can be sure of one thing. People will know who he is in the NFL from now on."