June 18th, 2021

Inside the CFL: There must be a season in order for CFL to survive

By Graham Kelly on May 12, 2021.

After weeks of silence on the subject, CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie recently announced the 2021 regular season would open Aug. 5.

While some of the other major professional leagues can survive on television revenues, the CFL depends on fans in the stands. That being the case it is hard to understand why the commissioner chose to keep the paying customers in the dark for so long. Of course, as Yogi Berra said, “Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.”

After announcing the coming of a 14-game regular season, the commissioner hedged his bets. “What must be in place for us to kick off on Aug. 5? 1. The approval of public health officials across the country and 2., Permission from governments to host a significant number of fans in the stands in a significant number of venues at the start of the season and in the rest of our venues after that, so a 2021 season is financially tenable for our clubs.” That second point is a big “if.”

For the CFL to survive, I believe there must be a season, even without a significant number of fans in the stands. There are two ownership groups in the CFL. You have the community-owned clubs, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. They have always been strongly backed by their provincial governments, with loyal fan bases that will not let their teams fold. They can survive another lean year.

So can the privately-owned teams. The managing partner of the Ottawa RedBlacks is real estate billionaire Roger Greenburg. Hamilton is owned by billionaire Bob Young, the Argos by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, whose assets are in the billions of dollars. The owners of the Alouettes while not billionaires have deep pockets. The B.C. Lions are up for sale but their president, veteran football man Rick LeLacheur, is confident his team can get through the year. The Lions plan to accomodate 4,500-5,000 fans in the lower bowl.

Nobody in their right mind buys a CFL team in hopes of making much money. With the exception of MLSE, all the other owners are involved as a labour of love.

Ironically but not surprisingly, the richest team in the league, the Toronto Argonauts owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, are reluctant to proceed without some kind of federal government financial contribution and fans in the stands. They’re the ones who want to get into bed with the XFL. The weakest franchise in terms of attendance, the Argo tail is wagging the CFL dog.

Right now, the teams showing leadership are on the prairies, the heartland of Canadian football. All teams have submitted return-to-play protocols to their provincial government. B.C. and Saskatchewan’s have been approved. The Manitoba government is prepared to support the Bombers financially and with approvals. How can the Alberta government turn down the Stamps and Edmonton Excellence while allowing the NHL to play?

Stampeder boss John Hufnagel is optimistic. “I think an Aug. 5 start is a very realistic start date, very prudent and very well-thought out.” Recognizing Calgary has one of the highest COVID-counts in North America, he said, “Fingers crossed that people will keep getting vaccinated and doing the right things so we can get back on the field and back in the stands.”

The Western clubs can make it happen if COVID can be controlled. The Eastern Conference is another matter. Commissioner Ambrosie said, “If we are unable to host fans in the East because of COVID-19, we are prepared to start play in the West, provided eastern teams can return to their home provinces and play in front of their fans later in the season.” Wrong. The league must play to survive even without a live audience, just like the NHL.

The nine franchises have the financial means to get through a lean year. All have been busy signing players. The CFL Draft took place May 3.

The provinces with CFL teams say they can vaccinate all adults by the end of June. That’s a real “shot in the arm” to those who love our venerable league. Get through this season and brighter days should lie ahead. I am looking forward to a shortened but successful 2021 season and a return to normal operations next year with the Grey Cup game in Regina.

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 49 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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