Ed Willes: It's Hail Mary time to save CFL season from uncertainties of COVID-19
As the CFL stumbles toward a return-to-play plan that appears to be drawn on a cocktail napkin, supporters of the Canadian game are left with two questions:
How can they possibly pull this off? And, what else did you expect?
Both are also rhetorical in nature.
Since this file first entered the public sphere three months ago, the league has offered little evidence they’re working from a coherent, orderly game plan; and if you were expecting anything to change on Thursday, you haven’t been paying attention.
The proposed deadline, which most knew wasn’t a deadline in the strictest sense of the term, came and went with the players’ association rejecting the league’s latest offer — a 33 per cent pro-rated share of their salaries — while CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was still chasing money from a reluctant federal government.
All this occurred as the Winnipeg hub-city model and the proposed six-game schedule was starting to encounter resistance in the Manitoba capital, and you have to know if you can’t sell the CFL in Winnipeg, you’ve got a problem.
This, of course, is also the opening act in a drama that will play out long beyond the deadline set by the league. Ambrosie will come back with an improved offer, as high as a 50 per cent pro-rated share, provided it receives some assurances in a new collective bargaining agreement to address the post-COVID-19 world.
The players’ response will likely be along the lines of, “Let’s settle 2020 and we’ll look at 2021 in the off-season.”
While this is going on, the feds will be looking for a way to help out in the most politically expedient way possible.
As seen by the heated reaction the first time around — see $150 million — that’s a tiny needle to thread. But even if they find a way, say in the form of a loan with very favourable terms, that still leaves the public-health threat the return to play poses, and neither the players nor Manitoba are completely on-board with this proposal.
The testing plan, as per Justin Dunk of 3DownNation, calls for players to be tested before they enter the Bubbledome, then on Day 6 and Day 13. They’re also expected to self-isolate for 15 weeks in Winnipeg — insert joke here — and they’re not the only ones who have a problem with the CFL’s plan.
On Wednesday, the Winnipeg Free Press published an editorial that raised a number of questions about the dangers of inviting some 500 football players, many who have been living in COVID-19 hot spots in the United States, to a province that’s almost eradicated the novel coronavirus.
“This much is clear,” wrote the Free Press. “A spike in coronavirus cases in any way linked to a political decision to bring the CFL season here would be viewed by Manitobans as an exceedingly personal foul.”
This brings us around to our second question — what else did you expect? — and say this for the league: at least they’re being true to themselves.
If we’ve come to know anything about this venerable and resilient institution, it’s that throughout its history, it defaults to crisis mode. Eight of the nine CFL teams have either declared bankruptcy over the last 30 years or so or teetered on the brink of insolvency. Saskatchewan was close in the ’90s. The Bombers were more than $5 million in debt in the early aughts.
They’re also the two most profitable teams in the league. Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa have all gone through Chapter 11 several times. So have the Lions, who are currently spared further indignities by the deep pockets of owner David Braley.
Come to think of it, what does it say about the league when one man, Braley, can own two franchises or that TSN, the league’s broadcast partner, has bailed it out a couple of times?
Yes, in a weird sort way that’s created a narrative that’s part of the league’s appeal. It’s not slick. It’s not corporate. But it’s ours, and isn’t it funny we have two teams in a nine-team league with the same name?
This time, however, the problem can’t be solved by a sympathetic benefactor or an understanding banker. The challenges present by COVID-19 are so complex, so multi-faceted, it’s difficult to see how the league can make this work.
For the plan to succeed, they have to align the feds, the CFL Players’ Association and the public-health concerns, all in real time, all while solving the myriad problems each side presents.
If the league can pull this off to everyone’s satisfaction, it will be a remarkable achievement and another colourful chapter in the league story.
It just doesn’t seem possible right now.
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