It’s a far cry from having 30,000 people packed inside IG Field, but a most interesting development this week in Montreal is giving Winnipeg Blue Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller new hope that a return to routine in the sports world isn’t as far away as many people fear.
On Tuesday night, the Montreal Impact defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 in MLS action played in front of a crowd of 250 soccer fans at Saputo Stadium. It marked the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March that a professional sporting event in Canada was allowed to have a limited crowd.
Baby steps, sure. But not insignificant ones given the current climate.
“Every day you learn something new about how we’re going to, as a society, live with this virus. So every day we’re learning. We’ll continue to learn, we’ll watch what other teams and leagues do about bringing fans back. Everybody will learn and we’ll find out ways to do that and make sure it’s safe for our fans,” Miller said Wednesday.
“We’ll build plans over the winter to find a way to have fans back in the stadium.”
It’s too late for the 2020 CFL season, which was scrubbed last week when the federal government wouldn’t commit to a $30-million interest-free loan to subsidize operations, which would have involved a six-game docket held in Winnipeg as a hub city. Miller has been vocally critical of the federal government for not bailing the league out, especially since virtually every other sports league in North American returned to action this summer.
“We’re a gate-driven league. It’s a different sport with the number of players that you’re bringing in, no other sport has that many players. We were working extremely hard to get to that place and we were almost there. We were in line with our players and were extremely close to making it happen. Everybody was ready to play,” he said.
“We’re a gate-driven league. It’s a different sport with the number of players that you’re bringing in, no other sport has that many players. We were working extremely hard to get to that place and we were almost there. We were in line with our players and were extremely close to making it happen. Everybody was ready to play.”
— Wade Miller
“We ran this into the ground. We did the best we could. I’m proud of the efforts the league put into this, our players, the players’ association. We took it where we could get to, and unfortunately we got caught up with things out of our control with the federal government.”
Now the focus turns to not having history repeat itself in 2021, when there’s no guarantee of a vaccine and many of the same issues may still be in play. In that sense, Miller said there’s plenty on his to-do list these days, even if his club isn’t taking the field.
“We’ll work with our season ticket members, get them renewed for 2021. Work with our partners, make adjustments to that. Both those groups have been very supportive with what’s going on. It’s just been overwhelming the response, the fan base we have in the CFL and Winnipeg, especially,” said Miller.
There’s still business to take care of this summer, including a week-long window that is now open that allows all CFL players to opt out of their contract if they wish to sign an NFL deal. If the player’s deal was set to expire after this season, they would become a free agent south of the border. If they still have term, their CFL club retains their rights.
Miller expects only a small number of players to go this route.
There’s no question a lost season is going to do some damage to the CFL brand, while also cutting off momentum a team like Winnipeg had built with last year’s Grey Cup victory. Just how much remains to be seen.
“It would have been better if we were playing. But we’re going to work hard to keep engaged with our fans. That’s what we can do at this point,” said Miller.
“We’ll plan for different scenarios and find a way to make the CFL get on the field. We’ll look at every scenario. Next season is still a long ways away. Let’s just see where the science goes.”
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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