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The first time the CFL went looking for help from the federal government this is the way its sales pitch was presented to the Canadian public:
We need $30 million right now and up to $150 million if the 2020 season is cancelled. By the way the season will likely be cancelled. We also lost $20 million as a league last season. Sorry, you’ll have to take our word on that.
The players, you ask? Well, no, they haven’t been involved in any of this and we’re still not sure if they’ll get paid or how much they’ll get paid. But the point is we need help or the league could fold.
So about the $30 million: When can expect that? And we’ll take cash or a cheque, whatever works best for you.
That was two weeks ago and, for the CFL, not a lot has changed as it stares down the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But, as it works feverishly to save this season — and maybe its existence — the league has at least changed its message.
Maybe that isn’t enough. But given everything the Canadian game is facing, it’s a start.
“There’s often a difference between what’s in the story and what’s in the headline,” CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie says over the phone from Toronto. “We’ve said all along we’d never ask for more than we absolutely need. But if you added up the worst scenarios, that became the story.
“Would we do things differently? Sure. You always want to watch the game film and make adjustments. We’re on a good track now. I believe there’s a way out of this fog.”
Even if finding that way might be like trying to find a contact lens on a beach.
In the not too distant future the CFL and the Players’ Association will make their case to the feds and the belief is their second attempt will be better received than the first.
Then again, it couldn’t be any worse. Ambrosie was roundly and understandably criticized for his poorly planned, poorly executed presentation a couple weeks ago. True, he was forced to go public prematurely when his negotiations with the feds were leaked to The Canadian Press.
But, in the court of public opinion, that didn’t matter. All Canadians saw was the CFL asking for $150 million, which was bad enough. But they were asking for that amount without providing a case to substantiate their claims and without the participation of the PA.
Since then, the players have been invited to join the party but the issue of financial transparency remains crucial to his entire process. That and about 20 other things.
“There are a lot of obstacles but we don’t have a choice here,” says Solomon Elimimian, the president of the CFL Players’ Association. “We have to work together on this.
“We have to restructure the ask, and answer the honest questions. But one thing I haven’t heard is no. I’ve heard let’s rework the proposal. I think there’s a solution there.”
That solution currently takes a couple of forms. The two most talked about are a shortened eight- or nine-game season beginning after Labour Day in front of reduced fans and the ever-popular biodome concept.
On Friday, B.C. Lions owner David Braley told TSN 1040 radio he favoured the shortened season: “Because I really believe that if we don’t play this year there’s a very good chance we won’t survive.”
Ambrosie was asked about Braley’s comments.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for David and he’s certainly entitled to share this thoughts,” he said. “I’m more optimistic about this. I believe there’s a way through this. It requires patience and creative thinking, but we can come out of this stronger and better for the experience.”
That way out, of course, goes though the government and both Ambrosie and Elimimian say there have been substantive talks with the Justin Trudeau administration over the last couple of weeks on any number of subjects.
From the CFLPA’s point of view there are technical issues involving the CBA. From the league’s there are the many challenges of complying with the public health authority.
But the thorniest issue concerns player compensation and a list of uncomfortable questions for both sides. Do CFL players qualify for CERB —the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit? Would any federal money go toward player salaries? What are the league’s obligation to the players and the players’ obligation to the league?
Those questions have created a huge public relations problem. The optics of American players taking public money are terrible and even if there are sympathetic ears in government, there will be limitations to their involvement.
“The encouraging part is every conversation with government has been positive and we keep talking,” Ambrosie said. “We have to recognize the government is dealing with an overwhelming number of cases.
“We see them building these programs. There may be a time when one of those programs is well-suited to our situation.”
So they keep working, keep talking, keep hoping because, as Elimimian says, the CFL “is worth fighting for.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, the CFL is not your standard Canadian business. We’ll spare you a dissertation on the league’s cultural significance and the rouge’s place in our national identity but it’s one of the ties that binds this country together.
Now it needs help. This might be a generational thing but we would be diminished as a country without the CFL. We’d lose something that brings us together. We’d lose a part of ourselves.
There are more tangible reasons to subsidize the league. The players, American and Canadian, pay taxes in this country. The CFL generates about $200 million in revenue and employs a couple of thousand Canadians.
That’s important. But this is about something else, something that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
“We’re all concerned that something we love is in danger,” said Ambrosie. “We’ll fight through this. We’ll be back playing football in 2021. I have to believe that.”
Ambrose is asked if the league will fold if games aren’t played this season.
“I’m not allowing myself to go there because I believe there’s a way through this.”
Now, if he can only find that way.
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