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With the CFL season in ruins, Winnipeg Blue Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller lashed out at the federal government Monday.
"The lack of support from the federal government is astounding to me — that they would also drag this on for over four months and ask two different times for us to come back and speak to them," said Miller. "It's astounding."
The league's board of governors voted earlier in the day to cancel the 2020 campaign after learning Friday the feds would not be supplying an interest-free $30-million loan to help the CFL stage a reduced regular season and playoffs in a hub city. The CFL originally asked, in May, for as much as $150 million in financial aid in the event of a lost season. It wasn't until they were told the government doesn't fund for-profit sports leagues that the CFL explored the option of a loan.
Miller, who spearheaded the move to make Winnipeg the prospective hub during the COVID-19 pandemic, was asked if he believed the Canadian government was ever committed to the concept.
"Obviously not, because the number was zero at the end of the day," he said.
"The lack of support from the federal government is astounding to me." – CEO Wade Miller
The Bombers didn't make any players immediately available, although quarterback Zach Collaros and linebacker Adam Bighill are scheduled to speak to the media on a conference call Tuesday morning.
In a Tweet, Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson said: "Go get a job Monday!!! If you haven't been feeling the heat, I bet you feel it now... no CFL in 2020."
Earlier, Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault responded to news of the cancellation.
"I am sorry to hear of the decision by the Canadian Football League to cancel their 2020 season. I understand this was a difficult decision to make, especially with regards to the league's talented athletes, devoted staff and football fans across Canada," said Guilbeault in a release.
"Over the past few months, my colleagues and I, both federal and provincial, have had several conversations with commissioner Randy Ambrosie and his team to try to find a solution for the CFL. Our government helped the CFL navigate throught the existing COVID-19 emergency response programs that are helping tens of thousands of businesses across Canada with revenue and liquidity challenges during this time.
"Although the league was able to benefit from some of these programs, its board members ultimately made the decision not to pursue the upcoming season."
In a statment released Monday afternoon, Minister of Northern Affairs and MP for Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, Dan Vandal, echoed many of Guilbeault's sentiments and added: "Our government remains committed to working with the CFL and we will be engaged to ensure our favourite teams and players are around for many years to come."
Miller was unhappy the diligent efforts of league personnel went unrewarded to prepare for the hub season and that Winnipeg missed out on the economic spinoff that would have resulted for the hospitality industry, adding the Blue Bombers would have profitted about $2 million for serving as hosts. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister pledged $2.5 million to help sweeten Winnipeg's bid as the CFL's home in 2020.
"Everybody worked hard to make this happen," said Miller. "And you know you saw the commitment from our city or province, public health officials that approved our plan in Manitoba. Canadian public health officials publicly said they were supportive of our plan, so yeah, extremely frustrated with that.
"And you look at the support our province has done for this event — as a city (they) just walked out on over 50,000 room nights. That's a huge loss for our city in an industry that's being impacted to the same level of sports and entertainment."
With the 2020 season shuttered, what's next?
"Everybody worked hard to make this happen. And you know you saw the commitment from our city or province, public health officials that approved our plan in Manitoba. Canadian public health officials publicly said they were supportive of our plan, so yeah, extremely frustrated with that." – CEO Wade Miller
"We're moving forward to 2021 — as the league we'll take steps and we'll get on the field in 2021 for sure," said Miller. "There's no doubt in my mind we'll play in 2021. We're going to build a better league in the off-season...
"We will work to make our league stronger as we move forward... we've already been working on that for a couple of years and now we've got more time to be doing that," said Miller. "And, you know, increase that fan experience for game days, increase the connection with our players and get more people playing football in this country."
The financial damage on the club and emotional toll on the staff will be significant.
Miller expects the losses on 2020 to exceed the $8.759 million that was held in the club's surplus account at the end of 2019 and some financing will be required to bridge the gap.
The football club has taken advantage of federal wage subsidies during the pandemic but the program's support will begin to diminish next month.
"We will work to make our league stronger as we move forward... we've already been working on that for a couple of years and now we've got more time to be doing that." – CEO Wade Miller
Miller would not get into specifics about what awaits his staff in football operations and the business department at IG Field.
"Our organization has taken collective pay cuts in a range from 25 per cent to 12 1/2 per cent," he said. "Those will continue on and we'll have to make further adjustments. We've had a staff meeting already today and as we move forward, we'll have to make further adjustments.
"And I won't talk any further about it because it's not fair to our staff who work so hard. We find ourselves in a situation that is completely out of our control."
Miller, a former CFL player, also had empathy for the players and expects there will be a new collective agreement to pave the way for next season.
"We were very close to having an agreement with our players," he said. "It was moving in the right direction and I believe if we would have had further government support we would've had a deal with our players done for this year. It's very frustrating for players. Players' careers are very short. You miss a year and it's extremely challenging for players."
Miller also had no criticism for commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who has been condemned by some for his role during the negotiations.
"Well, our league is a different league than the other ones you see across the country or across North America," said Miller. "And it's a challenging role to be in. And, you know, there's no playbook for a commissioner during a pandemic or for any of us and (I'm) not wanting to pass judgment on somebody working hard. You know everybody's frustrated with how everything occurred, right?"
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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