CFL Pass

STINSON: CFL goes from world's 'biggest global football league' to survival mode

At the Grey Cup in Calgary last November, Randy Ambrosie described the Canadian Football League as the “biggest global football league in the world.”

There were a couple of adjectives doing a lot of work in that phrase, but the commissioner had never been shy about bold pronouncements in his few years on the job. At the time, Ambrosie in full salesman mode, had a lot to tout: His global expansion initiative had brought partnerships in 11 countries, even if they were a long way from increasing the league’s actual fan base; there was an ownership group planning for a new team in Halifax, even if stadium plans were unsettled; the orphaned Montreal Alouettes were close to getting a new owner. The CFL still had problems in its biggest cities, but it was at least out there and trying new things.

The pandemic, quite obviously, has devastated those plans. But more than that, and especially when compared to other professional sports leagues, the effect of the coronavirus has been to expose the precariousness of the Canadian Football League’s business. It has gone from an ambitious agenda for growth — biggest global league and all that — to survival mode. It remains unclear if the CFL will manage even that.

The league is said to be in discussions on a $30-million short-term loan from the federal government that would allow it to play some kind of truncated schedule in a Winnipeg bubble setup. The Canadian Press and TSN have reported the interest-free loan from Ottawa was proposed after plans to secure $45 million from the Business Development Bank of Canada fell apart when terms could not be agreed upon. (The CFL hasn’t acknowledged any specifics on the record, going so far as to issue a statement late last week that said it had nothing to state.)

The potential new loan would allow the league to stage some games in 2020 and theoretically provide a bridge to a more normal 2021 campaign, one that might include ticket-buying fans.

But even with some kind of financial backstop that would keep the CFL from having to punt on an entire season, the prospects for salvaging something recognizable in this calendar year are still uncertain. The delay between when the CFL first started asking for federal help in May and now means there is no chance play could begin until some time after Labour Day. That would give them two months to perhaps cram in an eight-game schedule, pushing the playoffs and Grey Cup into late November and early December, and those are best-case scenario timelines. The later it goes, the more football has to be played in wintry Winnipeg conditions.

There is also the question of how many players would agree to show up for a shortened CFL season. Half the player pool is American, and most of those do not live in Canada over the off-season. If they are offered a pro-rated salary similar to that given to Major League Baseball players in their abbreviated season, an eight-game season would result in a salary of less than $33,000 for those players at the low end of the pay scale. Only the richest of CFL contracts would still net a six-figure salary if cut in half — and all players would be taking on the additional health-and-safety risk of playing amid a pandemic.

Given the nature of football, a single positive test would become an outbreak in a hurry. Spending months away from family for a fraction of normal salary to play at elevated risk in chilly Winnipeg is not a super-enticing proposal for any athlete, even one who has enjoyed his CFL experience.

It’s not entirely clear whether such a 2020 season would even be worth doing. While making the case for public money, Ambrosie has said the league’s teams lost more than $20 million collectively last season — and that was with ticket sales and concessions accounting for about 40 per cent of their revenues. In the early days of the pandemic, there was talk of a possible half-season with fans allowed in the stadium, but the persistence of the virus has scotched that idea. It has been clear for months that there was no business case for a CFL season without paying customers, and the only calculus that seems to have changed is that the league realized it couldn’t ask for federal funding and then just take the year off.

All of Ambrosie’s salesmanship efforts, meanwhile, have been undone in a hurry. The league conducted global scouting combines months ago ahead of a planned global draft in April, but time constraints and travel restrictions mean the imagined influx of foreign talent is likely on hold for at least a year. The would-be Atlantic Schooners are adrift, with front man Anthony LeBlanc leaving for a job with the Ottawa Senators in April and the remaining partners still looking for a possible stadium site.

And instead of building toward another Grey Cup where he could spend the week talking up the CFL’s successes under his watch, Ambrosie has had to admit that the league’s teams weren’t collectively close to profitable even before the pandemic hit.

Whether talking to government officials or negotiating with bankers, the CFL has been forced to say the quiet part out loud. It’s a business that, in the good times, has significant financial challenges.

Now it has something else entirely.

sstinson@postmedia.com

Source: calgarysun.com




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