CFL shuts down season after Canadian government refuses to pay them to play

The Canadian Football League canceled its 2020 season yesterday, announcing it was abandoning plans to play games in a “bubble” in Winnipeg and instead will plan on resuming play in 2021. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie explained:

“Even with additional support,” Ambrosie said in a statement, “our owners and community-held teams would have had to endure significant financial losses to play in 2020. Without it, the losses would be so large that they would really hamper our ability to bounce back strongly next year and beyond. The most important thing is the future of our league.”

That “additional support” Ambrosie mentioned was government money, something that goes back to April when the commissioner asked for $150 million in federal funds (all CFL numbers in Canadian dollars from here on out) and then said teams could repay it by showing government PSAs on game broadcasts. That went over really poorly with members of parliament, and Ambrosie eventually switched to asking for a $44 million interest-free loan, then a $30 million interest-free loan, but came up empty.

Government loans and grants to bail out businesses that suffered unexpected losses due to the Covid pandemic are commonplace, of course — American, United, Delta, and Southwest Airlines combined have gotten $19.5 billion, and the U.S. Paycheck Protection Program alone has handed out $380 billion in forgiveable loans, of which only some has been used to buy yachts. But the CFL cash request was weird, in that it was intended less to keep people employed than to compensate league owners (or “philanthropists,” as Ambrosie called them) for losses from this season, which will supposedly amount to between $60 million and $80 million).

The real reason that the CFL is shutting down when other leagues are pushing ahead with season plans, as we’ve covered here before, is more about the league’s contract with its players’ union saying it doesn’t have to pay salaries if there are no games, so the league’s nine teams will save about $50 million collectively on payroll by not playing. U.S. sports leagues haven’t wanted to give up the vats of TV money they can earn even for playing games in empty stadiums and arenas; the CFL gets about that much from its new national TV deal, but I guess you also have to pay for turning the lights on and buying equipment and all that other stuff, so the league’s owners figured, meh, let’s just skip a year and come back when the grass is greener.

What just happened, then, is that the CFL decided it was only worth it to play games in 2020 if the Canadian government paid it to do so, and when that didn’t happen, it took its ball and went home. Which is its right to do, but it’s also Ottawa’s right to say, Hey, it’s not our job to underwrite your profits. I mean, who do the CFL owners think they are, American Airlines?

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8 comments on “CFL shuts down season after Canadian government refuses to pay them to play

  1. One additional nugget that I noted from somewhere: the player pool in the CFL includes a fair number of American athletes, who go to Canada to keep playing for love of the game, or in the hope of getting noticed by an nfl club. With borders closed and travel complicated, the pool of players was going to be smaller and teams might wind up having fewer “standouts.” Surely that’s a factor in this decision as well.

  2. Sure, it was a weak case the Commish made… but C$30m is only about $400 in real money, isn’t it?

    FWIW I think the league should have just shut down for the season right at the beginning. It was pretty obvious that they were going to lose boatloads of money operating their businesses without fans, and that there really wasn’t going to be any way to play in front of fans this season. All these bailout requests have done is make the league’s owners (many of whom are multimillionaires, along with a couple of billionaires thrown in for good measure) look like carpetbaggers.

    Not playing is the right answer. Spending three months asking for money so you can offset your losses with taxpayer funding is not.

    BTW, there’s nothing stopping the member clubs from making use of the government’s existing wage subsidies or other benefit programs for their employees. Many may already be doing just that.

  3. Here are the real problems with the CFL: 1: The main demographic are people 65 and older. 2: They lose the TV battle to the NFL. For example: The Super Bowl has beaten they Grey Cup in the ratings for 18 straight years. 3: While the CFL does well in cities like Regina and Winnipeg, it does not in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the three CFL cities that really matter. Basically the CFL is like men’s tennis in the US: A dying sport, and the day that Toronto gets an NFL franchise (and one day it will), will likely be the day the CFL goes out of business.

    1. Have you ever been to a CFL game? I ask as the demographic you describe is not the average fan make up.

      A Toronto NFL team will make little to no difference to CFL attendance or TV support. The two fanbases have limited crossover. As you noted, Toronto largely ignores it’s CFL team (which often plays to less than 10k fans no matter what stadium it is in), so it is difficult to see how “losing” that team (even given the corporate advertising requirements) would create much of a problem. The likelihood is that the team would not fold, simply relocate out of downtown Toronto (which would help attendance also…).

      The Superbowl and Grey Cup ratings could once be compared straight up (when both were available on OTA TV). Since 2008, the Grey Cup has only been broadcast on a premium sports network… so it is not available to all households in Canada the way the Superbowl is.

      When the Grey Cup was broadcast OTA, it routinely received higher ratings than the Superbowl in Canada. The 2002 game drew 5.3m total, whereas last year’s Grey Cup drew just 3.9m (despite a 6.4m increase in that country’s population since 2002 – some 20%).

      If anything, the decline in Grey Cup popularity relative to the Super Bowl over the past 15 years is evidence of how bad an idea it is to restrict your product to just one network, particularly when that network is not available to all households.

      1. Here is the problem for the CFL if Toronto gets an NFL team. That team becomes the Canadian National Team with National Coverage ( just like the Raptors, Blue Jays and worst of all, Maple Leafs). Why worst of all? The Canadiens ( despite their history) are under the radar compared to the Maple Leafs. The Canucks, Senators, Flames, Oilers and Jets are in the same boat. Coverage of a Toronto NFL team will basically overshadow the CFL, just like the Maple Leafs do to other Canadian based hockey teams. As for Demographics, while I have not been to a CFL game there are plenty of numbers that note the 65 + demographic of the CFL.

        1. Try telling Quebecers that the Canadiens are under the radar compared to the Leafs.

          The Blue Jays are only a “National” team because there never was another MLB team west of them… they were not a true national team when the Expos were around.

          Lastly on this point, if you think Roughrider or Tiger-Cat fans will abandon their teams when a Toronto NFL team arrives (which I agree will happen at some point… possibly in conjunction with a team in Europe but who knows), you really have no concept of how the rest of Canada feels about Toronto. What you have said is akin to saying “it’s too bad about the Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox. They can never make any money because the Yankees exist”.

          It might make a nice sound bite, but it is simply not true.

          I would also like to see some (even one) of those “plenty of numbers” that show the CFL fan base is on average over 65 years of age.

          If you had attended a game and walked through a stadium while one was on, you’d know that is just not true either.

        2. Your post has a lot of problems, so I’ll just focus on your comment that the Habs are “Under the radar”

          The Canadiens have two national French language TV networks in slavish devotion to them, to the point that RDS literally has a show that consists of C-listers watching the game from the night before and commenting on it. They also have a healthy English local TV contract with TSN, along with a season-long reality show (Habs 24/7) that has aired for years.

          Speaking as a huge fan of the team, there is an incredible amount coverage of them, especially considering their mediocrity the past few years.

  4. Pandemic V panics Governments X and Y.

    Government X mandates restrictions that effectively eliminates customers(spectators).for business A

    Government Y mandates restrictions that substantially diminishes the customers(passengers) of industry B.

    Both businesses A and B ask for equitable relief from their respective governments.

    Government X says no. Business A shuts down. All stakeholders must bear the consequences.

    Government Y allocates 2.2% of massive stimulus bill for industry B to temporarily remain solvent. All stakeholders benefit.

    Which government is more fair?

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