CFL resorts to panhandling

The stunning loss of the CFL season has struck another blow to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — one that goes beyond their inability to field a product this summer and defend their Grey Cup championship.

And it also raises new concerns about how the football club, and others around the league, can weather this crisis.

“Substantial layoffs have occurred this week,” a rather grim president and CEO Wade Miller revealed to me on Wednesday. He declined to provide specifics of how deep the scalpel went this time, only to say it’s more than the four positions that were eliminated during the first wave of cuts in April owing to COVID-19.

You may recall that’s when Miller first indicated that all team staff, starting with himself, would have their salaries reduced between 12.5 to 25 per cent due to the economic downturn. At the time, there was still optimism that the league would find a way to play a 2020 season, albeit later than scheduled.

Now that a Hail Mary plea for federal government assistance has come up painfully short, I asked Miller if there will be further rollbacks for those making the biggest bucks within the organization, especially since there won’t be any games for at least another year.

“We’re doing a lot here to reduce our costs. There’s a human side to this too.”
— Wade Miller

Should head coach Mike O’Shea, for example, still take home between 75 to 87.5 per cent of his significant six-figure salary despite not roaming the sidelines this season? Especially when the majority of unemployed players are making nothing and have to apply for government subsidies, some of the lowest-paid team employees have been given their walking papers, and with organizational losses expected to exceed the $8.759 million that was held in the club’s surplus account at the end of 2019.

The optics are less than ideal, even if Miller bristled at my suggestion.

“No. C’mon, man. We’re doing a lot here to reduce our costs. There’s a human side to this too, Mike. A human side to this,” he said.

In fact, Miller said those who’ve taken pay cuts deserve praise, since they weren’t legally mandated to do so. Unlike a standard player contract that allows for releases without pay at various points in a year, staff deals are a little more iron-clad. And there’s not exactly language contained within to allow for rollbacks caused by a global pandemic.

“They voluntarily helped us by taking a reduction,” he added.

The best leadership always starts with setting an example from the top. It’s a tried and true formula in many companies these days, including this one. Free Press publisher Bob Cox, for example, slashed his own salary by 50 per cent while the rest of us at the paper took either 12 or 20 per cent shaves, depending on seniority, for several pay periods beginning in April due to a temporary decline in advertising revenue.

“We’re making adjustments to our business, as any business in different industries that have essentially had their revenue go to zero have had to do.”
— Wade Miller

We all had the option of saying “No” to the wage rollback, through our union, but that was not a practical alternative. And so we chose the lesser of two evils. Shouldn’t a pro sports team take a similar approach?

In the case of the Bombers, I understand their work is more seasonal, and certain jobs would be tough to maintain by having a whole year wiped off the calendar. Miller said there has already been some restructuring of roles as a result, and more could be on the way.

“We’re making adjustments to our business, as any business in different industries that have essentially had their revenue go to zero have had to do,” he said.

To be clear, I’m not just picking on the local club here. I’d make the same argument for all nine CFL teams, who have all had to let good people go recently. Even commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who deserves plenty of blame when it comes to the fumbled return-to-play scenario, has only committed to a 20 per cent reduction along with other members of the league’s executive team.

Miller doesn’t want to pile on, believing Ambrosie did what he could to have a season and ultimately ran into a government that refused to play ball. Miller was heavily involved in the process, including spearheading the move to make Winnipeg the prospective hub city. The Bombers would have profited about $2 million as hosts, while the provincial government had pledged $2.5 million to support the bid.

“He’s the leader of the CFL, so he’ll have to take that (criticism). Is it fair? No, it’s not fair,” Miller said. “We’re all living in a pandemic, and there’s not a playbook for how to play football in Canada during a pandemic. We’re building it as we go. We’re doing the best we can.”

“We’re all living in a pandemic, and there’s not a playbook for how to play football in Canada during a pandemic. We’re building it as we go. We’re doing the best we can.”
— Wade Miller

That last part is debatable, especially when you have the league essentially panhandling in the form of the “Grey Cup Fan Base,” which allows people to pay $349 to have their name etched on a permanent new structure that holds the cherished championship trophy.

The unique fundraising idea is intended to boost the league’s sagging bottom line, which is expected to suffer combined losses in the tens of millions of dollars. (Ambrosie, you’ll recall, initially asked for a $150-million bailout from Ottawa, then later reduced his ask to a $30-million loan, which was denied last week).

The pitch would be a lot easier to swallow if the highest-paid employees around the league weren’t still living large, at least by comparative standards to everyone else associated with the three-down game.

“This is a challenging time in our society, and the CFL and the Bombers are impacted, right? There’s a lot of people’s lives impacted by this, too,” said Miller.

As we learned again this week, some more than others, unfortunately.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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