CFL Pass

There's optimism, but hardly any time left, for CFL to launch a 2020 season

It is still a matter of if, not when the Canadian Football League plays a game in 2020.

However, if the federal government approves the league’s request for a $30-million, interest-free loan, everything else appears poised to fall into place and allow the league to schedule training camp, 27 regular season games, six playoff tilts and the Grey Cup game, all in a secure, bubble environment in Winnipeg.

The Public Health Agency of Canada signalled its approval of the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols during a teleconference on Friday, and that’s a major step in the right direction.

“From my perspective, from a public health perspective, we’re quite encouraged,” said Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer. “All the games would be played in a single hub city of Winnipeg, no fans in the stands, no contact with the general population and so on. So I think it’s looking very good. So from a pure technical assessment I think we are very comfortable with what’s been put forward.”

Njoo said the CFL proposal will be forwarded by the agency to the office of Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who must sign off if the league is to proceed to the Winnipeg bubble next month.

The Canadian Football League Players Association leadership followed up the positive news out of Ottawa with a hopeful message to the membership that began with four carefully chosen words: “We are making progress.”

They are in fact closer than ever to an unprecedented pact with the league, fuelling belief that a deal could be done within days if the federal funding domino falls. The CFLPA leadership told members it is awaiting word from the CFL and as a result, postponed a planned Friday conference call with team player reps.

“The government has still not responded to financial support, nor have they approved the return to play protocol,” the CFLPA said in its memo. “When we hear from the league, we will immediately reschedule our conference call with the player representatives. We will then convene a town hall meeting to provide you all with a full report.”

That leaves the players in a holding pattern for now, but “it’s not contentious,” according to a source. That’s reason for optimism, and another source said it’s possible the league could be in position to make an announcement by Tuesday.

If the money flows, the health and safety protocols are approved and a deal between the league and players follows, the CFLPA bargaining committee would submit the amended Collective Bargaining Agreement to the membership for a ratification vote, while the CFL would require approval from the league’s Board of Governors.

A source with knowledge of the negotiations between the CFL and CFLPA bargaining teams said Friday that only “a handful” of issues remain unresolved, and not all of them are financial. The two sides had to bargain their way through about 18 clauses of the current CBA, all of which needed amendment to accommodate a six-game schedule, rather than a normal 18-game campaign. The two sides still have to come to an agreement on a compensation package, which includes salary and pension benefits.

All the while, the clock continues to run down. One early scenario would have had players entering 14-day quarantines in their own homes on Saturday, in hopes of starting an eight-game regular season in mid-September. That’s off the table, and the league has been focused for weeks on a six-game campaign beginning in early October.

For the league to comply with its own health and safety protocols, players in the United States, Europe and Mexico will have to enter quarantine by the end of the month. A further seven-day isolation period and testing for COVID-19 would occur in the bubble in Winnipeg, then a training camp of 10 days to two weeks, a six-week regular season, two weeks set aside for playoffs, and a Grey Cup at the end of November.

It’s an expensive venture, and a $2.5-million pledge from the government of Manitoba will surely help the league pay for accommodations, meals and transportation. However, sources say the league is adamant that the season cannot proceed without funding from Ottawa.

And no matter how many other pieces are in play, that’s still the central issue. If the league’s request for funding is denied, there won’t be a season.

But there is optimism now where previously there was mostly doubt and uncertainty. It sounds like there is still too much to do in too short a time frame, but sources suggest the CFL is on the verge of pulling it off.

On Twitter: @sportsdanbarnes