October 26th, 2020

Inside the CFL: League has nine months to reinvent itself

By Graham Kelly on August 22, 2020.

I know many Medicine Hatters share my disappointment in the cancellation of the 2020 CFL campaign. Although the pandemic made playing this year a longshot, the fumbling, bumbling league commissioner Randy Ambrosie virtually guaranteed the Grey Cup would not be contested for the first time since 1919. Given the amount of money the Feds are shovelling out the door, many blame Ottawa for the lost season.

Ambrosie met with the House of Commons finance committee May 7. He asked for up to $150 million. He said that together the nine teams in the league had lost over $20 million last year. He provided very few facts and figures to back up that claim and less information about the CFL’s business model for 2020 and beyond. His presentation was so bad that Saskatoon Greenwood Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, a former sports broadcaster who covered the Saskatchewan Roughriders and loves the CFL, expressed his dismay with the presentation. He and other guardians of the public purse had reasons to doubt the $20 plus million in losses claim. The community-owned teams – Saskatchewan, Edmonton and Winnipeg – have been profitable for many years now. The Stampeders are a model, money-making franchise, as are Hamilton and Ottawa. Does that mean B.C., Toronto and Montreal lost all that money? Maybe, but what about their capacity to carry on?

The Lions belong to millionaire David Braley who at one time owned the Ti-Cats as well. The Argos belong to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment whose other properties include the NBA Raptors and the NHL Leafs, both hugely profitable. The new Alouette owners have very deep pockets, the Ottawa boys know how to run a franchise. Hamilton’s owner Bob Young is a billionaire. The Stamps are owned by the Flames.

It did not escape the notice of the Parliamentary committee that those financial power houses were not willing to pool their resources to guarantee the league could operate this year. Of course, just because you have a lot of money, doesn’t mean you want to spend it or lose it. The House Committee was also surprised that Ambrosie hadn’t discussed the league’s predicament or his proposal with the players. While roaming the world in search of a Lithuanian linebacker to make his league truly international, the Players’ Association was kept in the dark. When the league pulled the plug Aug. 17, they still didn’t have a deal worked out with the players.

On that fateful day in May, Ambrosie should have been flanked by the Association president Solomon Elimimian as well as Braley (a former senator) MLSE’s Larry Tannebaum, former Finance Minister and Rider diehard Ralph Goodale from Regina, and Bob Young. Throw in former CFL commissioner Senator Larry Smith. But he didn’t do any of that. His claims of huge losses, even though six of nine teams were doing well, strained credulity. All teams will lose millions this year because they kept most of their staff on and there are still bills to be paid.

While the pandemic exposed the flaws of the CFL’s business model, it’s given the CFL nine months to reinvent itself. The CFL is gate-driven. The NFL will play in empty stadiums and every team will make money because of their TV deals. Although TSN likes to tell you they gave the league a generous deal that covers most of the player salaries, given the league’s positive ratings, they are misers. If the CFL is to survive they need a better TV deal; they also need to find ways to cut costs and maximize gate receipts, souvenir sales and concession revenues. Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly are getting over $700,000 each. Realistically, the CFL can’t afford such salaries. We can’t compete with the NFL and shouldn’t try.

The nine teams must function as a single business entity, with revenue-sharing a priority. They must regard the Players’ Association as a full league partner. I believe the league has to become more Canadian while reducing the number of American imports. The Canadian ballplayer of today is so much better than he used to be. It’s time to mandate that each team has to have a Canadian QB as No. 1 or 2 on the depth chart.

To come up with the blueprint for the future, including the fate of Randy Ambrosie, I suggest a three person panel of Saskatchewan’s Jim Hopson, MLSE Melinda Rogers and Stan Schwartz who saved the Stampeders twice.

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 48 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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