It's been nearly 570 days since the Canadian Football League played a game, but a unanimous vote Monday by the CFL's board of governors has set a path to return to action in 2021.
The governors passed an amended collective bargaining agreement, while also confirming a new campaign will kick off Aug. 5. This comes after the league decided to delay the season in late April owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting off what would have been an early-June start. The CFL was one of the few pro sports leagues to completely shut down in 2020.
A schedule for the 2021 campaign will be released on Tuesday, but the format has already been decided: 16 weeks, 63 total games. Each club will play 14 regular-season games (no preseason), with two bye weeks.
"To say this is a happy day for the CFL is a monumental understatement." — CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie
"To say this is a happy day for the CFL is a monumental understatement," commissioner Randy Ambrosie told reporters in a conference call. "Obviously, we've all been waiting for this for a long time. When we were confronted – all of us, not just in the football business or the media business, but in all walks of life – with the COVID crisis in March of 2020, none of us would have imagined that it would have taken us on the journey that it has."
While it is a notable day for the CFL and its fans, there are still a few roadblocks. Ambrosie said he is confident any hurdles in the way will be settled in due time, including approval from the various provincial governments on return-to-play protocols, as well as clearance from the federal government on an exemption for players entering Canada from the U.S.
No provincial government has officially signed off on any plan to return to the field, though some have started to clear the way for fans to return to the stands in August. The CFL doesn't technically have to get an exemption for players arriving from the U.S., but it would make life easier to have the mandatory quarantine period of two weeks dropped to one.
"We have made great progress in our return-to-play plans, our health and safety plans and every day we inch closer and closer to all the approvals that we need. We feel very good about it," Ambrosie said. "Obviously, governments have a responsibility not just to sports leagues and sports teams, but to all of their citizens to make sure we're doing everything we can to keep each other safe. We still have some work to do."
"Obviously, governments have a responsibility not just to sports leagues and sports teams, but to all of their citizens to make sure we're doing everything we can to keep each other safe. We still have some work to do." — Randy Ambrosie
Ambrosie said players can report to training camp for July 10. By the time the season starts on Aug. 5, the hope, given what the league is being told by health officials, is that stadium attendance will vastly increase by the end of summer.
One of the biggest reasons for not playing in 2020, and why 2021 is now considered a go, is that a significant number of fans have to be in stadiums for the CFL to survive. More than half of the league's revenue is generated from the gates; even with fans permitted in 2021, the CFL predicts another year in the red.
Reports have suggested the league lost, collectively, between $60-80 million in 2020, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers submitting a $7 million deficit.
Ambrosie took time once again to encourage all Canadians to get vaccinated, saying it's the best route to opening up the country, including permitting a sizable amount of fans into their venues. Asked if all players will be expected to get the vaccine, he took a much more measured approach, but ultimately said his stance was everyone should do their part in fighting the coronavirus.
Another concern is with new variants of the virus popping up, including the Delta (B.1.617.2) variant, considered to be among the most transmissible. As for whether fans are expected to be fully vaccinated to attend a live game, Ambrosie said that wouldn't be the league's call.
"Those are going to be decisions made at the local level. We are in conversations with health officials at all levels of government; those decisions will be made in every province, in every local jurisdiction level," Ambrosie said. "What we're going to do is just continue to encourage Canadians whenever and wherever possible to get their vaccinations, because that's the best way for all of us to stay safe and to get out of the crisis that has held us back now for some 17-plus months."
There were some notable amendments to the CBA, none more interesting than the league having the power to add up to two additional playoff teams to the current six-club postseason format.
Ambrosie dismissed the likelihood of expanding the playoff field but fell short of eliminating it. He was equally confident the league would maintain the traditional East-West divisional format and not pivot to one nine-club grouping. The Grey Cup game will remain in Hamilton, played on the second Sunday in December.
"I couldn't really identify for you all of the things that might go into that kind of decision. I'm pretty confident, candidly, that we're going to go with our traditional format for this year," Ambrosie said. "But leaving it open is an opportunity to make decisions on the fly. Look, if we've learned anything through this past 17 months together, is that sometimes things change. And you want to be able to accommodate those changes if and when you need to.
"But for today, I'm thrilled to be kicking off CFL football on Aug. 5 and thrilled at the idea of being in Hamilton, in that beautiful Tim Horton stadium, to play the Grey Cup on Dec. 12."
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.