TORONTO — An associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management calls the CFL’s bid for securing financial aid from the Canadian government a “Hail Mary pass.”
On Tuesday, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie revealed the league was asking for up to $150 million from Ottawa due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal included $30 million immediately, additional funds if there’s a pro-rated campaign and the potential of $120 million more if the league was forced to cancel the entire 2020 season.
But professor Richard Powers feels it’s a definite longshot that the CFL will get what it’s asking for.
“In football terms this is a Hail Mary pass and you know how often Hail Mary passes work,” he said. “I can understand exploring different options but what really struck me was the amount of money they were asking for.
“In my mind, $150 million is ridiculous. Without any transparency, we have no idea what that money would be used for. Assuming there’s going to be a protracted schedule, why do they need that much? That’s the question I’d have.”
Another is whether the money would go to just the league and its teams or also be shared with players, the majority of whom wouldn’t be paid if no games were played. The CFL did commit to paying players any signing or off-season bonuses that were due.
“That’s what is unclear without any transparency,” Powers said. “Is the league acting on behalf of the teams?
“Is this part of the wage subsidy that they’d be entitled to just like any other employee? It’s all unclear at this point.”
The CFL hasn’t given up on staging a 2020 season but it has postponed the start of training camps, which were to open next month. It has also pushed back the beginning of the regular season — which was to begin June 11 — to early July, at the earliest.
But with many provincial governments having said there’ll be no sports events with large crowds this summer, Ambrosie admitted, ”No decisions have been made but it’s pointing us to a September start, at the earliest.”
Ambrosie didn’t term the CFL’s financial assistance request as a handout. He said the league wanted to be accountable to taxpayers and would repay Canadians “through community programs, tourism promotion, the Grey Cup, our digital channels. Anything and everything to repay the government we would be amenable to.”
But Powers wasn’t buying it.
“It isn’t a loan, it’s a handout,” he said.
And with many Canadians not working and an abundance of businesses closed, Powers doesn’t see much public sympathy not only for the CFL, but any pro sports entity.
“Nobody is getting rich playing in the CFL, however nobody is getting rich anywhere right now,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be much sympathy for a handout when not only other individuals but also other sporting organizations, amateur sports across the country, are in even worse shape. Most depend on dues and without a season there’s no dues, there’s no revenues coming in.”
Powers can speak from experience. Currently the president of Commonwealth Games Canada, Powers was formerly the director of Rugby Canada and president of Rugby Ontario. He said Rugby Ontario’s membership dues are down close to 50 per cent while Rugby Canada is dealing with a shortfall of between 20 to 25 per cent.
“Those are big hits,” he said. “I’ve done a couple of interviews recently on the hospitality industry … and bars, restaurants, theatres, all of these things are going to be decimated.
“Aren’t they just as important to the Canadian fabric?”
On Tuesday, Ambrosie cited the CFL’s rich history and meaning to Canadians as reasons to ensure its long-term future.
“I think that’s a reasonable argument,” Powers said. “But it’s the same argument the Stratford Festival can make … there are many other parts of the Canadian fabric that haven’t asked for support and are in just as dire straights.
“Look at all of the things that have been cancelled and they haven’t gone to the government saying, ‘Listen we should be compensated because we’re not going to have this now.’”
And Powers feels the Canadian government has more pressing issues to deal with than financially assisting a pro football league.
“I think this is going to be, ‘Yep, we’ve heard it,’ and be put on the back burner because it’s not and will not be a priority, in my view, for the government right now,” he said. “The CFL, I’ll say it again, is a league that’s been on life support for a number of years.
“You don’t hear the NBA, major-league baseball, the NFL asking for handouts. Other sports leagues have reserves … the CFL is not in that position and hasn’t been because it has been on life support for so many years.
“This is a professional league, they have other options. It’s amateur sports in Canada that are really reeling right now with the lack of membership dues.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press