May 28, 2020

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Bleak future for CFL if 2020 season cancelled

Editorial

With summer lurking around the corner, this is the time of year when sports fans begin dreaming about watching their hometown heroes battle on the gridiron.

But dreaming is likely the best fans can hope for this year, because the global COVID-19 pandemic has left the Canadian Football League’s 2020 season hanging by the slenderest of threads.

In video testimony before the House of Commons standing committee on finance Thursday, league commissioner Randy Ambrosie revealed for the first time how close that thread is to snapping.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"Our best-case scenario for this year is a drastically truncated season. And our most likely scenario is no season at all," Mr. Ambrosie said. "I don’t mind telling you, this is humbling, but the fact is we need your support."

The commissioner is lobbying the federal government for financial help — $30 million now to manage the current hit the coronavirus has had on business, and up to $120 million more if the entire season is cancelled.

The demise of the CFL season seems likely because many provincial governments, including Manitoba’s, have warned there will be no sports events with large crowds this summer.

It would be an understatement to say MPs on the finance committee gave the CFL’s boss a rough ride. At the end of his testimony, Mr. Ambrosie likely felt like a kick returner who had just been flattened by a swarm of angry special-teams tacklers.

From a purely business perspective, it’s a good thing MPs held the commissioner’s feet to the fire. The government should not provide a $150-million bailout — and it is a bailout, because it would be repaid in kind, not with cash — without demanding answers to some tough questions.

The commissioner is lobbying the federal government for financial help ‐ $30 million now to manage the current hit the coronavirus has had on business, and up to $120 million more if the entire season is cancelled.

On Thursday, MPs peppered Mr. Ambrosie with questions. Would the money just go to the league and its teams, or would it be shared with players? At a time when many Canadians are struggling, why hasn’t the league’s wealthier ownership stepped up? Why is the CFL approaching Ottawa and not banks for financial support?

These questions need answers, but it is also worth remembering the CFL is more than just a business — it is, for many, a cherished piece of Canada’s cultural fabric. The weeklong Grey Cup festival, culminating in the championship game, does more to bring this vast nation together than any event outside of Canada Day.

It is one of the few "businesses" that motivate workaday Canadians to stand up and cheer at the top of their lungs. What other local entertainment option has fans eager to paint their faces blue and gold before attending an event?

It should be debated whether the CFL, as a business, qualifies for a $150-million handout. On an emotional level, CFL supporters would argue hard in favour of federal support to ensure the survival of a sport that brings so much passion and pageantry into the lives of everyday Canadians.

As sportscaster Bob Irving, the radio voice of the Bombers, noted on his Twitter account: "The CFL is important to hundreds of thousands of Canadians, been around for a century, & whether you’re a fan or not, it’s a Canadian cultural icon ... so why wouldn’t the feds help out?"

It’s true that $150 million is a lot of money, even to save a football league; for a bit of pro-sports context, however, one might consider that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson — one NFL player — last year signed a four-year contract worth US$140 million.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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