Steinberg’s MMQB: A good week for CFL football

“Will play CFL football in 2021.”

Those were words we’ve been waiting to hear for a long time and they were great to read, and hear, from commissioner Randy Ambrosie last week. In delaying the scheduled start of the 2021 season a couple months, the league’s return-to-play announcement on Wednesday gave fans in this country a clear, concrete, realistic plan with a target date to look forward to.

Between now and August 5th, we have lots to sink our teeth into. The 2021 CFL Draft is in just over a week. There will eventually be a release of a revised 14-game schedule. And we’re less than three months from the target start of training camps in July. We’re living in an unpredictable world, so things can always change. But everything presented by the league last week seems feasible and attainable.

Let the countdown begin.

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Picking up the pieces

The cancellation of the 2020 season was tough to swallow. It was a kick in the gut to fans, of course, but also to players and team staff. Attempts were made to save the year via a few different avenues, but ultimately the league’s business model just wasn’t conducive to playing through a worldwide pandemic.

“The difference this year is that, candidly, the vaccines are out, and there is a reasonable expectation that we are going to see fans returning to large gatherings,” Commissioner Ambrosie told me last week. “That’s probably the single biggest difference if you want to compare year over year.

“As great as our game is, as amazing as our athletes are, we are still very heavily reliant on bums in seats. Almost 70% of our revenues come in some or fashion from fans being in our stadiums, which made it difficult if not impossible to have a season. There are always going to be things we look back and say we learned, and we did.

“I’ve said this repeatedly: one of the challenges we faced was that our game and our players have always been stronger than our business model. The other thing that we’ve learned is that we had to really work on that business model, which we have been doing.”

I’ll be honest: the biggest reason I’m encouraged about last week’s announcement is what I’ve heard from Ambrosie. It’s not often you hear a commissioner in pro sports admit to a business model in need of an overhaul. But that’s what we’ve heard from him since Wednesday and it’s clear the lessons of 2020 are being actively applied.

“We started talking about the need to really focus on a reset of our business model,” Ambrosie said. “We were talking about that in April, May, and June (of 2020). We had great resolve that immediately after…we had to deliver that news to our fans that we wouldn’t have a 2020 season, we got to work hard.

“We’ve had a tremendous collaboration with all nine of our teams. I think it’s safe to say we have a better business than maybe we’ve had in the past 30 years. But the one thing that still we need to do more on and (what) we need to improve is our revenue model. Because in the end, that’s the thing that has allowed other leagues to sustain better through this crisis than we have. They are not as fundamentally reliant on bums in the seats as we are.”

This pandemic has been so hard on so many. For those in charge of the CFL, it has forced a serious rethink. That’s not a bad thing. The fact the league has embraced that challenge is important and has me more encouraged about the future than ever.

What comes next?

Ambrosie has been upfront with the need to be flexible. Nothing is guaranteed right now, which is why the league has to be ready to adjust on the fly. That’s why the idea of East Division teams starting out west has already been floated as a potential plan to help hit an early August start date. And Ambrosie says that’s one of many contingency plans that exist.

Commissioner Randy Ambrosie revealed the league’s return-to-play plan last week (CFL.ca)

“We’ve committed to our governors to present them with a matrix around the middle of June that clearly explains what’s going to have to happen in each market to make a season happen. Frankly, I am confident that we’ll deliver something very positive. Beyond all of that, we’re building backup plans and then backup plans to backup our backup plans and we’ll build a couple of plans to support the double backed up backup plans.”

The first step is starting training camp in July and kicking off on August 5th. But in the bigger picture, the work has only begun on securing more lucrative revenue streams for the league. Being massively reliant on in-person attendance is admittedly not a sustainable plan to ensure the future of the league. That’s why new ideas are crucial.

“For example, we’re watching the legislation that has been tabled to change the restrictions on single-game betting,” Ambrosie told me. “We’re talking to experts about how that’ll translate into revenue opportunity for our league. We’re basically asking our teams and the league office to come together and work on every possible angle for the creation of an improved revenue model. There’s an answer out there.

“These conversations with the XFL are quite remarkable, to be honest. These are world-class people, they’re thoughtful and they’re smart. We’re learning a lot from talking with them, I’d like to think they’re learning a lot by talking with us. In the end, it’s all in pursuit of a business model that is as great as our game and I’m confident that we’ll find that.”

Cancelling the 2020 season was no fun. But learning from it and applying lessons to the future health of the league? That’s what needed to happen.

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