You know those cool people on Twitter who you feel like are your friends even though you’ve never actually met them?
In a way, that’s how I feel about the Canadian Football League.
I actually did “meet” the CFL back in 1995 when it had teams in the United States, but it’s been 25 years since we’ve been in the same room, so these days we really only correspond through social media.
Anyway, I consider the CFL my buddy and I care about its well-being. And under normal circumstances, we’d be together again and our Twitter relationship would be in full swing.
I’d have already gotten a taste of a new campaign with some preseason clashes, and the start of the regular season would be right around the corner with Edmonton hosting British Columbia on Thursday.
But the coronavirus pandemic has done away with normal circumstances, so there is no CFL preseason and there’s a real chance there will be no 2020 season, period. The league has already pushed back its start to September at the earliest, and best-case scenario it will feature a truncated schedule.
There had been some chatter about it partnering with The Spring League (a U.S.-based, extended stay scouting combine) and playing games in American hub cities. That, apparently, was mostly wishful thinking coming from south of the Canadian border, though.
“Barring some huge development, like a vaccine for COVID-19, it now seems clear we can rule out playing games this summer,” CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said during a virtual town hall meeting on May 20. “There are several reasons, including the continuing restrictions on assemblies, travel and border crossings. Notably, several provinces and municipalities have already decided to prohibit until September 1 all sporting events featuring large gatherings.”
The Grey Cup, originally slated for Saskatchewan, has been shifted to the site of the competing team with the best record (if held at all).
The annual “Touchdown Atlantic” game in Nova Scotia has also been scrapped for 2020.
Of course virtually all sports organizations have been forced to call audibles. The pandemic has had a devastating economic impact on businesses large and small, and the business of athletic competition is hardly immune.
The NBA and NHL had their regular seasons abruptly halted, with pro roundball set to resume on July 31 and hockey aiming for an expanded tournament to complete its campaign later in the summer. Major League Baseball has yet to have an Opening Day and no agreement has been reached on what kind of scheduling format is possible.
The NFL, meanwhile, maintains a wait-and-see attitude with its regular season slated for an early September kickoff.
Yet while the “Big Four” will be able to weather the storm despite taking huge financial hits, the CFL is another story.
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).
“We know there is a great deal of interest in whether we might play with or without fans, or with social distancing rules in place. We are examining all possibilities with both public safety and financial viability in mind. It’s just too soon to speculate on what a return to play in September might look like.”
One of those possibilities, of course, is no season at all.
“We are not announcing or promising a return this fall,” Ambrosie said. “We are just letting our fans know this remains one of the remaining possible scenarios for 2020. A canceled season is also possible. Again, it’s too soon to make a sure call at this point.”
I know next to nothing about business and a quick glance at my bank account reveals I know little about finances, but I know enough to be worried about the CFL.
While it has plenty of history and tradition, I have no idea if it has the infrastructure to survive a lost year.
The league has asked the Canadian federal government for emergency funding, with the CFL hoping for an immediate $30 million bailout and millions more if the 2020 season is washed out.
I’ve heard some people suggest Ambrosie and a few of the owners are crying wolf about the long-term fate of the league; they think it would get knocked down, but not knocked out. I have no idea if that’s true, but I’ve never heard anyone claim that the CFL was too big to fail.
So from a fan’s standpoint – and I’ve been a serious fan since the 1970s – I’m not just bummed about a possible canceled season but what happens going forward for one of my favorite sports organizations.
Chances are that five years down the road the NFL, MBA, NHL and MLB will be functioning basically just as it did before COVID-19.
I want to believe the Canadian Football League will do the same – but I have my doubts.
After all, we only really know each other through Twitter.