As Canada has faced COVID-19 and worked to deal with this pandemic, we’ve seen many institutions in our country face hard times responding to this unprecedented crisis. We’ve seen community festivals not run for the year, we’ve seen historic businesses that have been a bit part of the fabric of our communities closed their doors for good and we’re likely to see more to come. It’s been hard to watch and many of them have looked to government to help them weather this storm.

Governments at different levels have had to make difficult choices when it comes to who to help and how they help them. That’s put governments into an equally unprecedented situation as many different groups and business knock on their doors looking for help. It’s a lot to balance and while it hasn’t been perfect governments, both federal and provincial, have done a decent job to date. But today a story that speaks to this balance hit it’s crescendo, as one of these groups seeking help put out a statement on their future, one with clear undertones:

The Canadian Football League (CFL) announced that they were cancelling the 2020 season, as they abandoned their efforts to try to set up a shortened season to be played in a bubble city, Winnipeg. The CFL’s situation is a good example of the cracks that some groups have found themselves falling into thanks to COVID, but also a good example of a group making their own situation worse. For the record, I am a lifelong Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan and I was really looking forward to the Blue and Gold defending their Grey Cup win from last year. So when I heard that the CFL was seeking help during this pandemic, I was interested not only as someone who works in government relations, but also as a fan wanting to see his team hit the field again.

The CFL’s position is unique as it is a uniquely Canadian institution. It’s a professional sports league, but not some massive money-making operation like the NFL, NBA or NHL. Their financial structure is very different compared to the major sports leagues, mostly because they depend on ticket sales for their financial well-being. The major sports leagues don’t depend on “butts in seats” anymore, thanks to massive national TV deals and thanks to those, they are able to continue to play in empty arenas in bubble circumstances, as the NBA and NHL are at the moment. Add to those facts that Canada has a long tradition across party lines of not using Federal funds to help support pro sports teams, and you have a problem for the CFL; they are a pro sport, but they are not a “pro sport” in the sense of the usual suspects who are known for hitting up governments for money.

As a business, the CFL is more of the equivalent of Canada’s music, theatre or movie/TV industries, in the sense that they are also professional but are on the money-making scale of our American neighbours. Despite the profit difference, we support those sectors with government help because of their cultural importance to our country, something that also has wide popular support in the country. The CFL is as much a uniquely Canadian cultural institution as anything else; a league that plays a unique version of their game found nowhere else in the world that has uniquely Canadian twists like a 110 yard field, the “rouge” and for the longest time having two “Rough Riders”. So could a case have been made for the CFL to get help, yes? But here is where things went sideways.

It started with the CFL’s ask, which was even in the eyes of this CFL fan totally out of the question. Back in the spring they were asking for $30 million immediately, with the potential to go all the way up to $150 million over the next two years. To give some context, the Feds offered a total of $72 million for all the amateur sports sector in the country, covering national and provincial organizations, Canadian sport institutes and Indigenous sport groups. So right away the CFL’s ask was way out of scope and was never going to be given. It was too audacious, especially given the way that Canadian governments have treated pro sports teams and leagues in the past. But that’s not the only place where the CFL failed themselves in this case.

After their request, they were called before the House of Commons Finance Committee back in May where Commissioner Randy Ambrosie testified regarding their situation. If I am to be charitable regarding that appearance, it was bad. It was a bad example of reading the room and the moment, and in my view lead to causing the CFL more damage than helping themselves. Ambrosie started by pointing out how in the best of times CFL teams collectively between $10 million and $20 million a season, not exactly a good thing to point out when you’re trying to point out the exceptionality of this moment. Does it help to point out the difficult fiscal position of the league in regular times help them win the support of a government that has clearly stated they wouldn’t help businesses that were already struggling pre-COVID? Not at all.

Further to that Ambrosie went on to refer to the owners of the CFL’s franchises as “sports philanthropists”. In fact he repeated some variation of that throughout the testimony, constantly trying to paint their owners as philanthropists as a positive. And there’s nothing wrong with being a philanthropist, but for most people’s philanthropy is done knowing that they personally won’t break even. It’s charitable giving, not a business plan. And for the six privately owned CFL teams (remember, three of them are community owned and among the few profitable ones in the league) it really didn’t help their cause to say that “there is a limit to the amount of support they and their families are prepared to give.” This mixing of metaphors, trying to make a case to save their business while at the same time trying to say that their business is about charity and not making money, just looked bad and made matters worse.

On top of those problems was that not only didn’t the CFL seem to change their position on their ask, the more you looked at it the worst it sounded. They were asking for an interest-free $30 million loan, but when it came to repaying said loan there were caveats. If they were to get a loan, Ambroise told the Finance committee that when it came to paying it back “perhaps we will pay back some of that loan through programs.” So instead of actually paying it back, they were offering to “work” some of it off with good works in the community. Oh, and they suggested that all while saying over and over again “we are not looking for a handout.” Funny folks, that sounds a lot like a handout to me and honestly, if they were straightforward about it you could make a case for it.

Ultimately these approaches seemed to continue, or at least appeared to most because their asks never changed. They got strong feedback from across the political spectrum that they were asking for far too much, yet they chose to ignore that and plow forward doing the same thing. That lead to todays decision, with the final coup de grace to this failed approach by the CFL. In their statement announcing the cancellation of the 2020 season, instead of facing up to the real problems the CFL needs to face up to, they took a different approach. Instead of facing to their issues, they decided to lash out at the federal government, making it clear that they are blaming them for this:

“The federal government did suggest at times that the CFL pursue a commercial loan which would be partially backed by Ottawa, but it was short-term and very costly in terms of interest and fees, Ambrosie said. “That kind of arrangement would hamper our recovery more than bolster it. On two occasions, in June and again at the beginning of August, the government reached out to us with new indications they might step up and help in a more meaningful way. But at the end of the day, the help we needed to play this year never materialized,” he said. “This outcome after months of discussions with government officials is disappointing. But we’re focused now on the long-term future and we will continue to work with the federal and provincial governments in that context.”

Source: CFL.ca

I’m sure that when the CFL knocks on the feds door next time, that statement to throw them under the bus won’t be forgotten and surely won’t help the league get any help, regardless of how cathartic it might have felt to make it. That’s probably the perfect cherry to put on top of this sundae because it almost wouldn’t have been fitting for them to have changed course now.

The sad irony here is that the CFL should get help from the Federal government and they do fall into a crack in current government policy and political orthodoxy in Canada that should be addressed. As a fan of the league, I wish that the feds had stepped up to help here but at the same time, I can’t be mad for their decision not to. For a government to step up in a case like this there needs to be a case that can be supported to make it happen. The CFL failed mightily in offering such a case. They ignored not only the clear hints they were given about their requests, they doubled-down time and again. Furthermore the financial issues of the CFL predate this pandemic, which makes it that much harder for any government to give them financial support.

The CFL needs to face up to their real, long-term challenges and how to make the league more stable. Honestly ongoing, stable support from the Federal government could very easily be a part of that plan to ensure that the cultural gem that is the CFL continues to shine for generations to come. But in order to do that, the CFL needs to do what they haven’t been willing to do so far. That’s not on the federal government, that’s on them. They shouldn’t be shocked when a government that is trying to help so many in unprecedented times looks at that unwillingness on the part of the CFL and isn’t willing to look past it. That rests on the shoulders of the CFL, and as a livelong fan, I hope they finally tackles those bigger problems. I look forward to seeing my Blue and Gold on the field again, and in a league that has sorted out its own stability.