CFL’s future a confusing swirl of what-ifs

It’s been an interesting off-season for the Canadian Football League – and that’s putting it lightly.

As you’ll recall, the CFL was one of the few professional sports leagues to pull the plug on the 2020 campaign owing to COVID-19. Even that was preceded with a frustrating few months of confusion, with the CFL, led by Winnipeg Football Club president and CEO Wade Miller, trying desperately to shove a square peg through a round hole in an attempt to bring a bubbled campaign to Winnipeg last fall.

Efforts to secure federal funding were also a mostly fruitless endeavour, with MPs telling league commissioner Randy Ambrosie upon his first formal visit to Parliament Hill that he return a second time better prepared. Needless to say, the money fell through, even if it left a few disgruntled faces across the CFL.

What followed were mostly months of silence, with the assumption the focus had shifted to returning to three-down football in 2021. Then Ambrosie dropped a major announcement in early March, saying the CFL was in talks with the twice-failed XFL and the two leagues are interested in exploring a potential alignment.

What’s transpired since is a dizzying rush of confusing speculation, fuelled mostly by TSN, the league’s official TV broadcaster and one of the CFL’s main revenue streams. Here’s a tip: if you’re trying to gauge just how serious the CFL is taking something, you’ll get a pretty good idea by how much play it gets on TSN (spoiler: it’s been a lot).

The idea the CFL and XFL might merge one day, with some predicting that could be as early as next season, has created a dark cloud over the 2021 campaign – and has only further added to the confusion of what might transpire in the coming days, weeks, months and years.

Therefore, this is an effort to try to cut through some of the what-ifs and break down what we do and don’t know about the CFL this year and beyond.

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The CFL has yet to delay the start of the 2021 season. But with training camp starting in mid-May, preseason games beginning May 23 and the regular season to kickoff with a Grey Cup rematch between the Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats on June 10, there’s a very small chance the season will start on time.

Recent reports suggest the CFL is preparing to make a formal announcement postponing the season, which could come as early as this week. To be sure, starting a season late doesn’t necessarily mean axing a traditional 18-game season. It would, however, take some work.

Theoretically, the CFL could start as late as mid-July and it would be able to factor in 18 games by extending the season into December and/or eliminating a bye week. We could also very well see a shortened season, and a start date closer to the fall. We’re just waiting on the CFL to pull the trigger.

Todd Korol / The Canadian Press</p>
<p>Blue Bombers standout Adam Bighill hoists the Grey Cup in Calgary in 2019. If the CFL season were to start as scheduled, it would begin with the Bombers facing Hamilton in a Grey Cup rematch June 10.</p>
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Todd Korol / The Canadian Press

Blue Bombers standout Adam Bighill hoists the Grey Cup in Calgary in 2019. If the CFL season were to start as scheduled, it would begin with the Bombers facing Hamilton in a Grey Cup rematch June 10.

While I’ve always thought the league would be hard pressed to start on time, I was more optimistic even just a couple weeks ago. The reality is the CFL isn’t able or willing to ask their deep-pocketed owners to save the league with their hard-earned money. And with little financial support from the federal government — more on that later — optimism raises and dips based on how well the country is battling COVID-19.

With provinces such as Ontario and B.C., among others, seeing a rise in new coronavirus cases — and new, more relentless variants — coupled with the country’s dismal vaccine rollout, including the mess here in Manitoba, league executives aren’t nearly as confident the season will start on time as they once were.

We know teams are planning to host fans this season — we just have no idea when or how many.

When I spoke to Miller last month, he seemed very encouraged about the prospect of hosting fans this summer. He was also acutely aware of the need to see an increase in vaccinations across the country, and how the number of people jabbed in the arm directly equates to more butts in the stands and ultimately increased revenue at the gates.

Of the six provincial governments that have CFL cities, four have signed off on return-to-play plans, either verbally or in writing, with the last two being B.C. and Ontario. B.C. is seeing record COVID-19 numbers as is Ontario, which is currently on a provincewide lockdown as a third wave inches closer.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p>
<p>Blue Bombers President and CEO Wade Miller would like to see fans in the stands at Bombers games this season.</p>
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MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

Blue Bombers President and CEO Wade Miller would like to see fans in the stands at Bombers games this season.

While the CFL hasn’t ruled out playing with no fans, it also hasn’t committed to the idea either. Reading between the lines, given teams are projected to have lost millions in 2020 — including the Bombers, who posted a $7-million negative hit, even after receiving $3.1 million in government support programs — and the fact it would take years to recoup a similar loss this season, it’s safe to say it’s fans or bust in 2021.

What hasn’t been cleared is whether the federal government will allow for players living in the U.S. — which makes up a large sector of the league — to travel to Canada. There is currently a ban for all non-essential travel from the U.S. What’s also being asked for by the CFL is a shortened quarantine period — from 14 days to seven, plus three negative COVID-19 tests during that time — similar to what the NHL was recently granted.

Simply put, nothing has been approved.

Speaking of the federal government, the CFL remains in talks with Ottawa about potential funding. How and what that looks like is still to be determined, but the feds have already said publicly they’re not in the business of funding for-profit professional sports leagues.

I can’t imagine the government will budge this time, either, not with the number of businesses that are struggling and the fact there are some heavy hitters who own CFL teams who surely profited over the pandemic. The best bet for financial aid is likely from provincial governments.

Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press files</p>
<p>CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has been in talks with the XFL regarding an alignment between the two leagues. </p>
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Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press files

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has been in talks with the XFL regarding an alignment between the two leagues.

Another key part to the 2021 season is the relationship between the CFL and it’s players. Make no mistake: this relationship is far from good.

After most players went without a steady paycheque in 2020, and were forced to take massive cuts this season to trim expenses, the CFL still treats them as throwaways. For example, when it came for the announcement of the CFL and XFL entering talks — they had been talking for about eight months previously — the CFL Players Association received the equivalent of a five-minute heads up, via an email the morning of the announcement.

The relationship doesn’t need to be mended in order to come up with a viable CBA for this season. The CFL has opted to keep the current one in place — after trying to renegotiate it last year as a bargaining chip to playing in 2020 — and has directed its teams to shamelessly spend less on the players.

What’s more, the CFL has proposed to the players a plan that would see them take an additional 20 per cent pay decrease in the event they’re unable to play with fans in attendance. That didn’t go over well.

Where the issue lies is whether players living outside of Canada will find it financially worth it to risk their health playing for as little as they’re being offered, especially with a shortened season. It’s an easy argument to suggest there is far bigger supply than demand when it comes to the player pool, but don’t underestimate the damage it would cause the league to lose a number of star players who are just fed up with how they’re being treated.

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Looking ahead, there’s no doubt that for as long as the XFL remains in talks with the CFL, that relationship will dominate the narrative over whatever season does come to fruition this year.

This is probably the most embarrassing part of the CFL right now, which is kind of saying something. Even reporters have traded jabs with one another, with a line being drawn in the sand to whether you’re in or in the way of this potential merger.

I’ll admit, when I first read the news release that had Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson endorsing the new friendship, my initial thought was this would be very beneficial to the CFL. The CFL has struggled to be cool for some time and the addition of Johnson, along with business partners Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital, would be a significant boost in that area. They are literally experts in branding.

After some time to reflect, though, my opinion has changed. And not because I think the CFL is suddenly en vogue.

It’s because we are constantly being told the XFL is a good idea, a safety net or a lifeline for the CFL without any tangible proof. Is the CFL hurting financially? You bet. How much? No idea.

Because the CFL won’t open its books and tell the paying public how bad it’s been bleeding money, and that it’s been an issue even before COVID-19 was a thing. What’s worse is it appears decisions are being made by a select few, with the league clearly ignoring the public regarding its desire to keep the game the way it is.

To be clear: this is under serious consideration, with the likelihood being it ends with a merger. Teams are being muzzled, backed up by non-disclosure agreements, so that’s a strong indication of where this is headed. People in team offices who knew little about the XFL are now getting on board, buying into the idea.

I’ve heard from a number of people across the league about the influence of MLSE, the current owners of the Toronto Argonauts. The word is, they don’t want to keep the team afloat in a city that has seriously cooled on them – ditto in B.C. and Montreal – but with Bell, the parent company that owns TSN, one of the majority stakeholders of MLSE, the potential XFL-CFL alliance has them blinded with dollar signs in their eyes. Which is why TSN is so high on the idea.

As for the changing the CFL game, any partnership with the U.S. would surely mean the loss of three downs. How it might affect other rules or areas in the game is still to be seen. We’re not at that point, despite all the speculation.

One final thought includes the new framing of CFL 2.0, suggesting this could be the start of a global league and the XFL can accelerate that plan. The premise has always been global expansion — slowly but surely growing an audience outside of Canada with the hope to cash in later.

But the entire thing was billed by Ambrosie as Canada and the World versus the U.S. I’ve been told that by Ambrosie on more than one occasion, with the commissioner also quick to add that all the political chaos happening in the U.S. would only strengthen the world’s relationship with Canada.

If you’re wondering why you won’t find it in print, it’s because it was a ridiculous comment, left on the cutting-room floor. It sounds even more ridiculous today.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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