Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said the most likely scenario is to cancel the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ambrosie made the admission Thursday in testimony to a House of Commons standing committee on finance. He appeared via video during a panel on arts, culture, sports and charitable organizations after news broke last week that the CFL requested up to $150 million Canadian in assistance from the federal government.
The commissioner said the league’s future is “very much in jeopardy” and that teams collectively lost about $20 million last year.
“Ours is a big brand but not a wealthy business,” Ambrosie said. “Unlike large U.S.-based leagues, our biggest source of revenue is not TV — it’s ticket sales.
“Governments coping with COVID 19 — for reasons of public health that we totally support — have made it impossible for us to do what we do. Our best-case scenario for this year is a drastically truncated season. And our most likely scenario is no season at all.”
The CFL has already canceled the start of training camps — which were scheduled to open this month — and pushed back the opening of the regular season to early July, at the earliest.
“I don’t mind telling you, this is humbling but the fact is we need your support,” Ambrosie said. “So we can be there for all the community groups that depend on us.”
Following Ambrosie’s presentation, committee members took turns taking the commissioner to task.
“Some of your comments have a lot of holes in them,” said Kevin Waugh, a former sports journalist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He asked if the CFL was looking for a bailout or loan?
“What we’re looking for is a partnership with government,” Ambrosie said. “Our fundamental position is that we are looking for financial support that we want to pay back to Canadians. If it’s in the form of a loan, perhaps we pay some of that loan back through programs . . . we’re really looking for a business relationship that would be good for Canadians in the long run.”
Waugh also pointed out the CFL’s three community-based franchises — the Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers — all turned seven-figure profits in 2018. He added the league’s six remaining franchises are privately owned by people or corporations with deep pockets.
“The fact is that in the face of essentially a zero-revenue model, all of our teams, including our community teams, are going to suffer significant losses that are going to be hard to recover from,” Ambrosie said. “The real issue is this crisis is essentially going to quadruple or more the financial losses that our teams will take in a season that could potentially be lost altogether.”
Peter Julian of New Westminster-Burnaby in British Columbia wondered why Ambrosie’s presentation didn’t include any presence by the CFL Players’ Association.
“Those are the world-class athletes, as you’ve said, that actually are the heart and soul of the CFL,” Julian said. “What would they be saying if they were before the committee? And how much of the financial support you’re requesting would be going directly to the players of the CFL?”
The CFL and its players have resumed meeting about potential contingency plans for the ’20 season after talks broke off for roughly two weeks. Ambrosie said Thursday the two sides are scheduled to gather Friday.
“As for how much will go to players, we have to work that out,” Ambrosie said. “We know, for example, our players and alumni could be a potential solution in the healing of Canada."
Julian also questioned Ambrosie about some of the corporations and individuals involved in CFL ownership. He added at a time when many Canadians are struggling, why isn’t the league’s wealthier ownership, “stepping up to provide support for the CFL?”
“All of those groups and people you mentioned have been stepping up,” Ambrosie said. “The question really for us is how many losses can these owners take when they’ve been losing approximately in total $20 million a year?
“And there is now, of course, a dramatically accelerated level of losses that will come with a truncated season or a lost season altogether.”
Peter Fragiskatos of London North Centre in Ontario asked Ambrosie why the CFL had approached government and not banks for financial assistance.
“I think the answer lies in the fact that as a league last year we lost approximately $20 million,” Ambrosie said. “First of all some of our teams are community teams that, by virtue of their structure, can’t take on traditional commercial credit.”
Fragiskatos countered, “If banks won’t support the CFL, why should the federal government support the CFL?”
“It’s not a question of whether banks would support us,” Ambrosie said. “The issue is you’re now taking a $20 million loss and you’re almost certainly making that loss bigger in future years."