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Once again, the CFL springs to life

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Death. Taxes. And the CFL finding a way to dust itself off and get back on its feet.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/08/2021 (488 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Death. Taxes. And the CFL finding a way to dust itself off and get back on its feet.

From shady business dealings and bankrupt owners to fledgling franchises and ill-fated expansion — RIP Shreveport Pirates and company — there’s been no shortage of close calls and near misses over the years that have had the three-down loop seemingly facing a date with the Grim Reaper.

It’s always something with this league, isn’t it?

Willie Jefferson (5) and Adam Bighill (4) gets the crowd going against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during second half CFL action in Winnipeg Thursday, August 5, 2021.

Now, this tale as old as time has a fascinating new chapter: one that began Thursday night at a raucous IG Field that was a sight for sore eyes and will continue for the next few months in the form of a 2021 season many feared would never come.

This particular moment of reckoning lasted a lot longer than others in the past, with plenty of pandemic-related twists and turns. This time, we were repeatedly told, they were really, truly in peril.

“I’m not a doomsayer or any of those things, but I’ve been through CFL near-death experiences before. There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty around the CFL. It’s fragile,” long-time Canadian sports journalist Stephen Brunt warned last March.

Ooooh. Hide the children and cue the spooky music.

To be fair, it sure looked like the knives were out after the entire 2020 season was scrapped due to COVID-19, leading to combined league-wide losses in the $60 to $80 million range. When marquee clubs such as Winnipeg and Saskatchewan are taking near double-digit hits, you know you’re in big trouble.

Things really looked dire after the CFL went hat in hand begging Ottawa for a cash infusion in the form of a $30 million interest-free loan last year, only to be shot down on the grounds there was nothing essential about them. That prompted the league to turn to its fans for financial support, selling inscription space on a new Grey Cup base for the low, low price of $349, a move that reeked of desperation.

But wait, there’s more!

Then came the rumours and rumblings earlier this year of a life-saving merger with the XFL, one that was going to change the face of the league in a dramatic way. Goodbye Canadian ratios, hello four downs?! The alternative, we were told, was too grisly to contemplate.

And yet, here we are, a new campaign now underway and no sign of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or his fellow American investors to be found. Maybe a partnership of some kind eventually happens, which commissioner Randy Ambrosie alluded to earlier this week. But the important thing is the CFL found a path back to the field in front of paying customers on its own, without a government bailout or the need to sell its soul.

Just like that, a beloved slice of Canadiana that was supposed to have one foot in the grave has sprung to life once again.

No, every game isn’t going to look and sound like the one we just witnessed, a Grey Cup rematch between Winnipeg and Hamilton nearly two years in the making in one of the healthiest markets champing at the bit to finally get out and celebrate a championship won nearly 21 months earlier.

But at least the patient has a pulse. And instead of simply trying to survive to see another day, the focus can shift back to the future.

“How do we grow the game? How do we double, then double again and double again our success?” Ambrosie said the other day in a refreshing switch from the doom-and-gloom discussion that had become all-too-familiar since the CFL went dark.

“They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We’ll be encouraging everyone to get out to look at where are the possibilities to grow and expand our game because what we really owe to the game is long-term success.”

Finding a way to tap into the younger demographic is key, something the Bombers have done a solid job of in recent years. One glance from my press box perch at the masses gathered outside the Rum Hut for the season-opener was a stark reminder of that.

Despite the strong start to the new campaign, now is not the time for a victory lap. There’s still plenty of reasons to be wary and franchises in big trouble, specifically in the two biggest markets of Vancouver and Toronto. I dare say they won’t see a crowd this year in those markets that comes close to the 29,376 who fought traffic and long lines to get into IG Field on Thursday night and watch the Bombers pick up where they left off more than 600 days ago, downing the Tiger-Cats 19-6.

The world may be a much different place today compared to back then, but Winnipeg’s smothering defence seemingly hasn’t skipped a beat.

I was somewhat surprised the game wasn’t a complete sellout, figuring it would be a slam-dunk. What to make of the fact there were a few thousand empty seats for the highly-anticipated event? Clearly, not everyone is comfortable rushing back to the “old normal” even if they now have the green light to do so.

Whether it’s ongoing health and safety concerns magnified by being part of the largest live sporting event in Canada since the pandemic began, the requirement that fans must be fully vaccinated, financial issues or even the choking smoke in the air, there are likely many factors in play.

“I’m a 20-year season ticket holder with both shots and I’m not there. I wanted to be there really badly but I have three kids at home under 12 and I chose not to go,” one Blue & Gold supporter told me. “I’m doubled but I’m not prepared to go back to big crowds yet with no distancing. My kids can’t be vaccinated due to age and I could still bring it home to them,” said another.

It will be interesting to see what kind of numbers the league’s nine markets attract once the initial excitement of a long-awaited return has abated — especially if the fourth wave and Delta variant continue to be factors north of the border. We’re not out of the woods yet.

There will no doubt be many more obstacles threatening the CFL’s livelihood, both this season and beyond. There always are. But if we’ve learned one thing about the league, it’s to never count them out.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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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