CFL future in Trudeau's hands


Half a century ago, his flamboyant father brought some flair to the Canadian Football League by performing the ceremonial opening kickoff to the Grey Cup game.

Justin Trudeau is being asked to make a much more meaningful, long-lasting contribution to three-down football.
He might even have a chance to save it from collapse.

We’re about to find out what Canadian football means to this country’s top elected official, and to the nation itself.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has asked the Prime Minister to rescue the league, which like so many organizations is under siege from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ask: an immediate $30 million. But that’s just a first-down play.

“In addition, as has been reported, we have told the federal government we may need up to another $120 million in the future if the worst-case scenarios all become reality,” Ambrosie confirmed in a statement, Wednesday, repeating the bomb he dropped with some media outlets, including Postmedia, late Tuesday. “At best, our season is delayed and, at worst, we could lose several games and even our entire 2020 season.

“If concerns about large gatherings in stadiums persist, our future itself could be in jeopardy.”

That’s the closest Ambrosie has come to calling this a matter of league survival.

His worst-case scenario is becoming more and more likely. Province after province has lined up to say large gatherings of fans at sports events are a long way off.

The latest was the commissioner’s home province, Manitoba, on Wednesday.

“Mass gatherings such as concerts, summer festivals and major sports events will not be considered before September, 2020,” read the provincial update, chilling words for a league whose regular season was supposed to kick off in the middle of June.

The league’s revenue depends largely on fans in the seats spending their hard-earned dollars on tickets, concessions and merchandise. It’s a simple formula: no crowds, no reason to play.

But this government Hail Mary is as complicated a play as anything offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice drew up while helping the Blue Bombers win the Grey Cup last fall.

The CFL doesn’t fit the template of most businesses. Three of its teams, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Edmonton, aren’t funded by wealthy private owners, but by community-based models that have already seen provincial and civic governments contribute to their current status, the Bombers and Riders through taxpayer-funded new stadiums.

Toronto, by comparison, is owned by mega corporation Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Just under half the players are Canadian, the rest American. Some live here, some south of the border.

The average salary isn’t quite six figures, although high-end quarterbacks earn in the neighbourhood of $700,000 per season.

In his statement, Ambrosie described CFL players as “working-class heroes.”

“One superstar in some other US-based leagues might make as much as the rosters of several CFL teams combined,” he pointed out. “We are a Canadian league without access to giant TV markets in places like New York and California.”