Better luck next year? The CFL may want to try 2022

By | August 18, 2020

When the Canadian Football League finally gave up on 2020, nobody lobbed up a Hail Mary in one last, desperate attempt to stage a season.

There was no point. There was no one standing in the end zone to catch a touchdown pass, especially considering there were no viable downfield targets after the Trudeau government batted away the CFL’s final request for an interest-free pandemic-season loan.

CFL proponents may complain the league was snubbed by a government that appeared willing to pony up actual grants, never mind loans, for businesses that cannot claim to be national cultural institutions.

Critics of the league may charge the fault lies mainly with the CFL itself, which initially asked Ottawa for $150 million before dropping the demand to $42 million and then finally begging for $30 million before ultimately settling for the princely sum of zero.

On Monday, when the league finally conceded defeat, Commissioner Randy Ambrosie told the Canadian Press he regretted the $150 million figure was made public, but couldn’t explain why the league and Ottawa couldn’t work out a deal for more modest money.

The league, which relies on ticket sales and concessions for most of its revenue, couldn’t stage a 2020 season without some form of subsidy. 

That means the CFL has no choice but to get creative if it wants to survive 2021. 

Nobody knows whether football fans will be allowed to gather in stadium-sized numbers anywhere in Canada next summer. That’s because there’s no guarantee a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 will be tested and ready for distribution in less than 10 months.

It’s more likely a vaccine will be ready in time for 2022 or 2023. In the meantime, Canadian public health officials are unlikely to sanction enormous gatherings of people  — even outside, where it’s more difficult to contract the virus that causes COVID-19.

This reality has not escaped Ambrosie.

“None of us really know what 2021 is going to look like,” he said.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie says no one knows what 2021 will look like. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press/File)

The Winnipeg Football Club, which was poised to host a 2020 season before the feds burst the CFL’s bubble, does not appear ready to concede a second consecutive year where fans won’t be permitted to watch football games.

Live with the virus

“You also hear that we need to figure out a way to live with it,” Winnipeg Football Club president and CEO Wade Miller said Monday, referring to a Manitoba public health talking point about COVID-19.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, had made “learn to live with the virus” a mantra in recent weeks.

“What we’re going to do is figure out a way to live with COVID and and get our fans back in stadiums,” Miller said.

“June is a long time away and we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. But our focus is having our fans back in the stadium for 2021.”

There are a number of reasons this is not realistic. Chief among them is the sheer size of Canadian Football League crowds.

When large groups of people are gathered in one place, even outdoors, one symptomatic person is capable of infecting hundreds of others. Even worse, the ability to conduct contact tracing becomes extremely difficult in a scenario where people brush up next to each other in busy concourses such as the narrow aisles at IG Field.

Sanitizing washrooms for large crowds would be difficult during a game, even if a stadium operated at half capacity or one-quarter capacity. 

And while it is theoretically possible to get football fans to file into a stadium in an orderly manner at a pre-arranged time so that they could sit in a socially distanced configuration for three hours without interacting with anyone else, how many fans would pay for the privilege? 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller says he’s planning to have fans in the stands next season. (CBC)

On the other hand, the universal use of a contract-tracing app could make it easier for authorities to track outbreaks after a mass gathering. But again, would enough paying fans be willing to accept the risk of infection?

These questions make it clear the CFL ought to have a plan in place for a 2021 season that does not involve fans. The good news is, the league has plenty of time to think about it.

The bad news is there may be fewer fans around by the time the league gets back in business, especially in markets where there are other sports options. That includes Major League Soccer, which is already more popular than the CFL in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

“I’m really looking forward to 2021 and the 2020 year being over, quite honestly,” Miller said Monday. “So let’s start talking about 2021 and you know, get excited.”

Before that excitement builds, the Canadian Football League requires a strategy. A last-minute long bomb won’t work next summer, either.

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