Windsor Star


Ambrosie `confident' season won't be lost, but admits most factors are out of his hands

- SCOTT STINSON Scott_stinson

For an announceme­nt that was intended to provide clarity on the Canadian Football League season in 2021, Randy Ambrosie's new target date sure does come with a lot of uncertaint­y.

While the CFL commission­er stated on Wednesday that the league “will play football” this year and that, even if a shortened season cannot begin as now planned on Aug. 5, he remains “absolutely confident” that another league campaign will not be entirely lost.

Ambrosie also admitted the whole thing is out of his hands.

He needs provincial health authoritie­s to sign off on returnto-play protocols, which will only happen in the event of several sustained weeks of improvemen­t in the fight against COVID-19. And he needs, he said, “significan­t” numbers of fans in the stands to mitigate the losses that would come from playing in front of empty stadiums.

Even more has to go right for that last condition to come to pass. It's certainly possible that ramped-up vaccinatio­ns and continued public health restrictio­ns will significan­tly change the picture in the worsthit provinces over the next six weeks, but there's no guarantee that government­s that have been repeatedly burned by loosening restrictio­ns will be eager to allow large outdoor gatherings by midsummer.

Ambrosie seems to have accepted that Quebec and Ontario will be slow to move on that front, and has suggested the season could begin with several straight weeks of games on the Prairies, giving the two provinces in the East more time to get comfortabl­e with the idea of allowing fans in stands. But that idea seems to have skipped right past the point that, presently, Alberta's new-case rate per capita is higher than that of Ontario, and that Alberta, Saskatchew­an and British Columbia all have higher new-case rates today than does Quebec.

If the league is resolute that paying customers must be present to justify a 2021 season, then again, a lot of good pandemic news needs to break Canada's way over the next short while.

But the fans-in-stands question also leads to an even bigger uncertaint­y, one that stretches back to the cancellati­on of the 2020 season: How many of the league's owners are truly committed to seeing their teams return to the field?

As was the case last year, Ambrosie insists there simply can't be CFL football in front of empty stands. He says more than half of the league's revenue comes from game-day fans.

The commission­er notes that the CFL doesn't have the giant TV deals of the big four North American leagues, which allowed them to return to play while fans stayed home. And that's true. But Major League Soccer came back. Major junior hockey returned in parts of the country. The Canadian Premier League, a fledgling soccer outfit, was back last summer. The National Women's Soccer League returned for a spell, as did the WNBA. Golf, tennis, rugby, cricket, auto racing: all kinds of sports organizati­ons found ways to hold events amid unfavourab­le economic conditions.

And while the bigger leagues do indeed have fat TV deals, they also have massive expenses. An entire CFL roster would make about one-quarter of what the Toronto Blue Jays will pay George Springer this season.

So why does the CFL not want to consider playing in the same type of environmen­t that so many other leagues have done? It was said last year that at least some teams wanted to play in 2020, despite a lack of financial assistance from Ottawa. And now the league is back at a similar point, with at least some of the ownership groups holding out for game-day revenues before they would consider resuming play.

All of it points to something we've known for a while: business is so bad in some of the league's markets that the clubs would rather not operate at all than play games that would generate losses even steeper than those in a regular year. Can the CFL survive when there's such a divide between the healthy franchises and those in the big cities that continuall­y struggle?

Ambrosie is an optimistic fellow who is undeniably passionate about the league he leads. But that was true at this time last year, too. It didn't help the CFL play any games.

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