I’d made peace with the fact that there would be no 2020 Canadian Football League season long before the plug was officially pulled this afternoon. A circuit that starts in the early part of the summer couldn’t due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as each weekend passed it became more apparent that time was quickly running out.
An infusion of government cash never seemed likely, and a six game season played in a locked-down Winnipeg hub was a desperate plan for a league that needs ticket-buying fans.
Everything hinged on maybes, but it was always closer to “maybe not.”
The last ray of hope was extinguished when the Canadian federal government denied the nine-team organization a $30 million, interest-free loan last Friday. That decision was made in what was supposed to be Week 10 of an 18-game regular season. Now – for the first time since 1919 – there will be no Grey Cup to determine the CFL champion.
“All the pieces that were required to play didn’t come together,” said CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who spoke to reporters via teleconference earlier today. “We were close to a new (collective bargaining agreement) for 2020 with our players and we had a health plan that had been approved by the officials in Manitoba, but what we really needed in the end was financial support from the federal government. That never materialized.”
A lack of transparency by the league has been cited as a major reason there was no financial aid, but Ambrosie insists that wasn’t the case.
“It was never brought to our attention that there was a lack of transparency,” he said. “Quite honestly, I thought we were as clear and concise and as transparent as we could possibly be. They did show us a couple of opportunities that we were clear with them would not work for us, and some new ideas surfaced and they looked even more promising, but they never materialized. I just really don’t think it was a lack of transparency. I just think in the end they couldn’t get done what we thought they would and what we hoped that they would.”
Like all people whose jobs have been impacted by the virus, CFL workers have taken a devastating hit. But the players – unlike their NFL counterparts who have plenty of financial wiggle room – were forced into a wait-and-see situation for months.
As late as last week the league was denying its players chances to bolt for NFL training camps, citing the fact that they were under contract. But considering they weren’t getting paid and have families to provide for, that put them in a horrible spot.
And it’s not like corporate generated much goodwill with the on-field talent. When Ambrosie and company originally began lobbying the government for money, they didn’t involve players in the negotiations. And although they ultimately came together to present a unified front, it wasn’t enough.
“I’ve never met a leader that I respect who doesn’t take responsibility when things don’t go well, so I do feel responsible for the fact that we’re not going to play this season,” Ambrosie said. “But there are things that we can learn. I can look back – and I have looked back – at how all this unfolded, and there are things I would’ve liked to have done differently. You just try to learn from those things and move on.”
If this was the NFL canceling its season, you could be confident that its players would be fine and it would return in 2021 with all 32 of its franchises intact.
And while I want to think that’s the case with the CFL, it’s hardly a sure bet. As I wrote back in June:
Compared to the NFL, its television deal is modest. A six-year contract with The Sports Network, signed in 2019, is worth around $37 million (in U.S. dollars) annually and shared among the nine Canadian teams. That sounds pretty good until you realize the NFL’s 32 franchises shared $8.78 billion in TV revenue in 2019 – about $275 million per club. Those figures are based on the annual report released by the Green Bay Packers, the only team that publicly releases its finances.
The CFL also counts on paying customers to help the bottom line (average attendance last season was 22,917 per game).
With no TV games in 2020 and attendance that averages zero, you can imagine what a huge blow this is to the Canadian Football League. Comparatively speaking, the NFL is a big box chain retail operation while the league north of the U.S. border is more of a mom-and-pop store.
And that’s not an insult; I love the CFL – everything from its unique rules to its tradition – and I miss watching it. While football season begins for many of you when the first NFL exhibition is played in August, mine always starts in June, somewhere in Canada.
“Our single biggest source of revenue is ticket sales, so that will be affected by this,” Ambrosie said. “We plan on 2021 to be a softer year for revenue based on everything going on with the virus.”
So what happens now?
“I talked to the governors today and there was a real spirit of resolve,” Ambrosie said. “We’re looking at our financial models, and we’re looking at ways to create more efficiencies. We need to find ways to share more together to make our league stronger. There are no magic answers to all the challenges we’re going to face, but I have the good fortune of waking up every day with a remarkable group of governors, and a remarkable group of owners, and I get a chance to go back to them with some time that we’ve never had before to really work on a long-term plan.
“We need to think about ways we can accelerate our plans to become more international and we need to look at revenue opportunities that will open the doors to a bigger and stronger future. I simply believe in the people we work with. I believe we will rise to this challenge and I believe with the support of our fans and our sponsors, this league can be position for the best future possible. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I believe 2021 will be the year of a great comeback for our league.”
I want to believe, too.
However, I’m going to err on the side of skepticism after the way this non-season played out.