Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie delivers his annual state of the league address to reporters during the CFL Grey Cup week in Calgary, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. Ambrosie says the league is examining all of its options to stage a 2021 season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie delivers his annual state of the league address to reporters during the CFL Grey Cup week in Calgary, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. Ambrosie says the league is examining all of its options to stage a 2021 season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie says league exploring all options to hold 2021 season

The CFL had maintained it required government funding to stage a shortened season

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie says the league is examining all options — including a resumption of talks with the federal government, playing in hub cities and holding games with no fans or limited spectators — to get back on the field in 2021.

The CFL cancelled its 2020 season Aug. 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that came after it was unable to secure financial assistance from Ottawa. The league had hoped to play a shortened campaign in Winnipeg.

The CFL had maintained it required government funding to stage a shortened season. In April, it presented Ottawa a three-tiered request that began with $30 million initially, more in the event of a shortened season and up to $150 million for a cancelled campaign.

In July, the CFL modified that request to $44 million before asking Ottawa for a $30-million, interest-free loan on Aug. 3. However, the two sides couldn’t agree on a deal.

“When we didn’t succeed in August in our discussions, the federal government did leave the door open to ongoing discussions,” Ambrosie said in a telephone interview Thursday. “My strong feeling is that part of the responsibility is to be optimistic that conversations can restart and take us somewhere.

“You have to be thoughtful about it, you have to be realistic. But in the end I believe there was a genuine interest in resuming conversations and you have to hope that will lead us to an outcome that helps us to get back on to the field.”

Ambrosie believes the relationship between the CFL and federal government remains strong.

“Look, I believe it would be foolish not to acknowledge the overwhelming challenge it takes to govern in this time,” he said. “To be negative and hostile towards them would be, I think, a mistake.

“You acknowledge we weren’t successful, then you just have to dust yourself off and be willing to open up a new set of discussions. Frankly, that’s how I’ve approached this, just to be a person with a positive energy and bring that energy to every discussion we have.”

But the CFL isn’t pinning all of its hopes for 2021 solely on Ottawa. Ambrosie said the league and its nine teams are considering all options for a return to the field.

That includes playing in a hub city, staging games in an empty stadium or before reduced crowds. All of those options would be difficult ones for CFL franchises, which all rely heavily on ticket sales to generate revenue.

Ambrosie expects to have some answers about the CFL’s future Nov. 16. That’s when he’ll hold a townhall with fans to kick off Grey Cup Unite, an initiative where the league will hold many of the events usually held during Grey Cup week virtually.

However, a big challenge facing the CFL is the uncertainty surrounding the novel coronavirus. It’s unclear what the numbers will be like next summer or when a vaccine might be widely available.

“We are looking at a no-fan scenario, we’re looking at a couple of levels of limited fans,” Ambrosie said. “The most optimistic version of our plan is the vaccine is out and taking a positive footing and we’re looking at hub city again because you have to account for all of these things as possibilities.

“But the challenge we’re all facing, not just football, is that we don’t know where the pandemic is going to take us in the short to medium term. We’re going to look at every possible way to get back on the field … one way or the other we’re going to try to the best of our ability to figure out a way to do it.”

Another issue for Ambrosie and the CFL is the state of the B.C. Lions following the death Monday of owner David Braley.

“Obviously it’s a conversation we’ll have with his family about the future of the team,” Ambrosie said. “We’re going to have to work through the challenge of David’s passing in the middle of this pandemic … but I really believe there’s a bright and great future for the B.C. Lions.

“I spent a lot of time with David as commissioner and I’ll tell you this: He’d give me a hard time because he liked to give me a hard time. But then he’d remind me at the end, ‘Randy, remember. You’re the commissioner. You’ve got a job to do and go get it done.’ I feel in my head and heart that what David wants from me today is to find solutions and to get this league going.”

The CFL has been one of the lone major sports leagues not to operate during the pandemic. Ambrosie admits that doesn’t sit well with him.

“It will always be, for me, disappointing that we didn’t but I do think it’s important to make some distinctions,” he said. “First of all, the NHL was largely through most of its regular season … when it went into the bubble to finish it off. Similarly with basketball.

“We’d not started and faced the daunting task of bringing together the largest group that we have to bring together every year, that being your pre-training camp roster. That made our situation considerably different than what some of the other leagues were facing. Now, it is what it is and you can’t moan about it but we did face some unique challenges. I can honestly say we tried everything we could to try to get back on our feet and came up a little short.”

A burning question remains what the CFL’s future will be if it can’t play again in 2021, especially considering the league reportedly lost between $60 and $80 million because of the cancelled season. That’s a scenario, Ambrosie said, he’s not considering.

“I just feel like we’re going to find a way,” he said. “Would it be good not to play in 2021? No way.

“But I know how much our fans want us back on the field and its through that lens I’m looking at all of our activities so that we make sure we have a good outcome in 2021.”

Ambrosie said the CFL has to examine how it does everything.

“Quite honestly I’m optimistic about everything,” he said. “I have to believe the work we’re doing, the appetite I feel for our game, the importance of football in Canada, the importance of the game itself and all that it stands for will lead us to being back on the field in 2021.

“Right now we’re looking at many scenarios. That’s a word we used a lot in the spring and summer. The time we sadly haven’t been playing has given us a chance to do that kind of work and come back not just in our previous version but in a new and really re-energized version of our league.”

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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