Dark days for CFL present opportunity for radical, necessary change
It’s easy to say from a distance, easy to opine without delving into all of the future uncertainties when it comes to sports, and live crowds, and what it means when a game disappears for an entire year.
But in these dark days, there is an opportunity for the Canadian Football League — the chance for a foundation-up renovation.
This fall, for the first time since 1919, the Grey Cup will not be awarded. (No, the last interruption didn’t have anything to do with that other great pandemic, but with a rules dispute between rival football organizations.)
The CFL’s plan for a six-game bubble season in Winnipeg looked for a time like it would clear all of the health and safety hurdles, and that the players would sign on to a temporary collective agreement to make it possible. There would be no season, though, without federal government assistance, and in the end that wasn’t forthcoming because the league couldn’t make a business case for itself.
The CFL wasn’t in a position to accept a loan, with interest, that it wouldn’t ever be able to pay back, and the feds, who have many a bail-out on their docket right now, weren’t willing to agree to what would have been a $30-million handout.
The problem, for both sides, is the CFL’s deeply flawed business model, a product of its idiosyncratic history.
Taken as a whole, the league can be profitable.
It’s a solid television property, and it enjoys strong fan support in Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa. The Saskatchewan Roughriders alone, a community-owned team, would be worth a whole lot of money as a private, for-profit business.
But the rest of the CFL — including the teams in the three largest markets in the country — is not nearly so flush. Those clubs, all privately held, routinely lose many millions every year (Hamilton has gone some way to staunch the bleeding of late…), with no turnaround in sight.
So what rises from the ashes of the 2020 season that didn’t happen?
Potentially, a new way of doing business — not that it will be easy getting there, and not that it will come without pain. And there’s a real question whether commissioner Randy Ambrosie is the guy to make it happen — his initial pitch for $150 million in government help was an unmitigated disaster. Though, to be fair, navigating the current circumstances would be a massive hurdle for even the most visionary of sports executives.
Never mind the fact that even in simpler times, trying to build a consensus among the private and community-owned teams has been a fool’s errand.
But to oversimplify a complex challenge, here’s the deal:
On the plus side, the CFL has its history and its place in the national culture, which is certainly worth something; it has unfettered access to the best football-playing talent not employed by the National Football League, with a fresh supply generated every year by the college system; it has a supportive media partner; it has its most stable ownership group in decades; it has new or new-ish stadiums in Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg and Regina; and its championship game is a sure-fire money maker that still generates massive television ratings.
On the minus side, there is the huge market disparity; there is an over-reliance on box office and in-stadium revenues; there is near invisibility in the country’s biggest cities; there is the inevitable conflict between privately and publicly owned franchises; and, strictly from a business point of view, there is a quota system that creates artificial value for Canadian players, even though they represent precious little star power.
Lead Off with Ziggy and Scotty Mac
Randy Ambrosie: Playing this year wasn't in the CFL's long-term interest
August 18 2020
The league as a single business entity — think the original MLS model — with reduced player costs and a coherent marketing strategy.
Getting there would be precarious. On the labour front, there would be a bloodbath. Turning rivals into true partners, reconciling the private and public interests, satisfying those who have already dropped buckets of their own money into the game, would be extraordinarily problematic — perhaps impossible.
And if there aren’t going to be fans in the stands in 2021 either, it may well be a moot point. The CFL has survived many a near-death experience before, but losing two seasons would create a true existential crisis.
But stumbling along isn’t an option. Neither is waiting for a government saviour.
If there was ever a time to roll the dice, this is it.