Winnipeg as CFL hub city an intriguing possibility

Two things are for sure: Wade Miller desperately wants professional three-down football to stay afloat this year, and he’s doing everything he can to make Winnipeg the CFL’s new home for a shortened 2020 season.

But wanting something and getting something are two entirely different things. And if Miller is successful in paving the way for Winnipeg to become the hub city for all the league’s nine teams to play an eight-game season come this fall, there’s going to have to be a lot more than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers president and CEO on board.

But before we get into that, a quick update: contrary to earlier reports, there is no guarantee Winnipeg will even be the hub city, just like there is no guarantee there will a 2020 season. Both of those possibilites remain very much up in the air and each requires a number of hoops to jump through before earning a final stamp of approval.

What is clear at this point is Winnipeg is a preferred destination as a hub city, even if there are a number of obstacles facing the CFL as they continue to navigate through a new ‘normal’ brought on by the coronavirus.

It’s important to note here there is still a lot of unavailable information. Both the Bombers and CFL are remaining quiet on the topic — the likely reason being they still have a ways to go before this can be called real.

But even if we don’t have all the necessary information, there’s value in going through the issues that have and will inevitably arise as a decision is still being made one way or another.

The first — and most important — issue with the hub-city idea will be ensuring the safety of everyone involved, from football front offices, to players, coaches and other team staff, to stadium staff, to the general public.

So before anything can be pushed through, a return-to-play plan must be cleared by the province, which in turn means being OK’d by Manitoba’s top medical professionals. Miller has been in consistent contact with Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, as he tries to come up with the safest way to run the league in Winnipeg.

Manitoba has been an impressive case study for how not to suck during the pandemic and it’s why the CFL sees Winnipeg as such an attractive destination. We’ve been the most effective among provinces with a CFL team when it comes to tackling COVID-19. As of Friday, there were 325 total cases, with only 16 active.

The biggest safety concern would be a sudden influx of Americans — a group that makes up about half the league’s players — crossing the border. The U.S. has struggled to keep the virus in check and therefore to ensure there isn’t a spread of COVID-19, there would have to be mass testing before anyone could come over and again once players arrive.

But before that happens, the players have to agree to show up. While negotiations between the CFL’s Players Association and the league have improved in recent weeks, there seems to be a disagreement as to what kind of compensation should he handed to players for a truncated season.

Where things get dicey is when you compare how coaches will get paid to what’s being suggested for the players. While front offices have taken pay cuts as high as 20 per cent, players will likely see their salaries slashed much more than that. The plan is to pay players for the total number of games, as per the CBA, meaning if they do play, it will be for less than half their base salary.

Players must also decide whether they’re OK with the health protocols put in place and, since it’s extremely unlikely they’ll be allowed to bring members of their family, whether they can afford to leave their spouse and children for an extended period of time.

Speaking of logistics, talk about a mental maze trying to figure out how to accommodate nine teams in the city.

Where will players stay? How and where will everyone practise? What about players in need of daily medical attention, where will that happen?

One can only assume at this point that’s all being figured out and the plan will be cool with every club.

Another issue is how the CFL plans to pay for all this.

As mentioned, ensuring the safety of all will be a top priority and implenting proper testing protocols will be expensive. When looking at hub-city models from the other professional leagues around the world — such as the NBA or MLB — it seems, at first glance, to be out of the CFL’s price range.

But the difference between those leagues and the CFL is the NBA and MLS, both of which are planning for hub cities in the U.S., are worried about the community affecting the players, whereas, in Winnipeg, the concern would be protecting the players from the community.

Could testing be ramped up at the beginning and then softened once players get cleared of the virus and accustomed to their new home? Maybe. It would certainly cost less.

Further, since the CFL loses money in a normal year, how does this all make financial sense when there will surely be limited or, more likely, no fans in the stands?

The Canadian government has already stated that any public money given to the CFL will have to go to the players and not those running each club, including a number of deep-pocketed owners.

It’s been suggested the league is working on having whatever money comes in going to player salaries. The players, in turn, would then spend their money in Winnipeg, contributing to the city’s economy. That’s at least a better sales pitch than the league simply putting its hand out.

Another problem is time. With the league planning to play as soon as Labour Day weekend, that gives the CFL about three weeks to make a decision. Time is running out, but at least we’re getting closer to the end zone.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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