Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ owner Bob Young wanted the CFL to play football in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ticats’ ‘caretaker’ as the 60-year-old Steeltown native prefers to be known was willing to offset the losses of other owners to fund a shortened season from his own pocket. He would have done so by contributing more than the amount required from Hamilton, according to league sources.
If that had happened, Young could’ve been dubbed the CFL’s caretaker. However, the league’s board of governors voted against a condensed schedule this year after the government denied a CFL-specific financial package.
Young was fully involved with the league’s proposed return-to-play plan and shares his perspective on what occurred behind the scenes during an in depth Q&A discussion.
Q: Can you take us through a timeline of noteworthy events in the decision-making process from March to August?
Young: I can’t give you any of that. There is no story line to this. The problem that we’re all dealing with is a damn virus of the sort that not even the health authorities have ever seen before. We all wake up every morning with a different headline and we are all expected to adapt to it and behave correctly in a world where we are learning as we go how to deal with a viral pandemic. And the CFL was every bit as much a victim of the virus as anyone.
When we realized we weren’t going to be able to play in front of our fans — the CFL, as you know, is a gate-driven league — that was going to put a massive great big hole. I would worry about the CFL because most businesses that I’m involved in have seen their business go backwards by 10 or 30 or 60 percent. Only in the CFL have we seen our business go to zero dollars as a result of the health authorities prohibiting us from having fans in our stadium, for good reason.
I’m very sympathetic to our health authorities, they’re trying to do the right thing. But that is what put us in crisis back in March, and we’ve just been, as Randy Ambrosie was saying, doing a lot of analysis as to what the right paths are and executions of those paths. Unfortunately, the league concluded that we just can’t pull it off.
Q: Once it was known the Canadian federal government wasn’t going to approve an interest-free loan, did that end the 2020 season?
Young: Yes is the short answer. But the reality is COVID-19 is the real villain. It was disappointing because we felt we were so close to getting it done. The Tiger-Cats were one of the teams who were furthest over on, ‘We’ll do whatever it takes to play, guys, just give us a window of opportunity and we’ll squeeze through it.’ Sadly we weren’t able to pull it off.
Q: Did the owners consider funding a season with their own money?
Young: That conversation has been ongoing since I first got involved in the league. In our league, various teams have good years and bad years, but as a whole the league does not make money. On a regular basis, whether it’s our community teams out west who do fundraising drives or whether it’s our private teams, someone has to come up with additional cash over and above what we’re able to earn as a business to keep these teams afloat.
In a pandemic like 2020, it was a calculation of which bill was going to be bigger, the bill for playing in a hub or the bill for shutting the league down for a year. And without government support, the league concluded the second option.
These are really interesting conversations, as far as I’m concerned, however, they’re all now history — I don’t care. We had heated debates with my fellow governors, they’re all smart guys, they all looked at the numbers and we debated how to understand the numbers. At this point, that’s all history and now we’re focused on making 2021 in Hamilton the most exciting season our fans have ever been a part of.
Q: Could Randy Ambrosie have been more prepared when presenting to the standing committee on finance and would a better performance have led to a season?
Young: That’s not really very fair to poor Randy. He’s been taking it in the neck for months now from a lot of our fans, mostly from our sports journalists — I love you guys, for the record. There is a sense sometimes in reporting that it’s so obvious what the right thing to do is and these guys must be idiots not to see the right thing. But the catch is Randy and the league governors are looking at data that is not public data. By definition, you know less of the information than we are dealing with. Sometimes we have to make decisions that we are not in a position to explain to our fans and we’ll look stupid.
The visible information would suggest we do this, but the information we’re working with forces us to do something different. That’s all I can do, I can just explain how complex these decisions are. I can also explain — Randy did speak to this, he’s a former player in our league, he played for 10 years before he had a very successful business career — his primary motivation about trying to get this season off the ground was to get money to our players.
Our players count on their salaries playing in the Canadian Football League. If the Canadian Football League has no money coming in because we have no games, and we can’t sell any tickets, and our broadcaster can’t earn any television revenue, not surprisingly there is no money for the players because there is no money for anyone else, either.
Here’s the thing we all have to accept: we’re dealing with a pandemic. It’s the fault of the damn virus. It’s not your fault, it’s not my fault, it’s not Randy’s fault. I can get miffed at the virus for ruining the CFL, but there are bigger stories out there than the CFL not playing. The bad guy in all of this is the virus, all the rest of us have just been doing our best to deal with the situation that the virus has put us in.
Q: What financing options was the league discussing with the government?
Young: Do we have two hours? Because with about two hours I might begin to give you a decent answer to that. Suffice it to say, on the tight timeframe we were dealing with and the limited options the government felt they had to offer us, there was simply not a fit between what they were offering and what would work for our financial situation. Simply put, it would have been irresponsible for us — to use a football analogy — to punt the ball if we were no better off for doing it. If we’re going to lose a lot of money this year, and if all we do is move those losses into the future, we’re no better off. We needed a way of reducing the losses this year if we were going to play, and the government in their infinite wisdom concluded that they were unable to help us.
My reaction is I’m sympathetic to everyone, including the government’s situation. There are things unequivocally the government could have done better, there are things we could have done better — the world is full of mistakes right now because we’re dealing in a situation none of us have ever dealt with before.
Q: What’s your outlook for the league and how it can be ready for next season?
Young: Our job is now to play the cards we’re dealt as effectively as we can. You can argue that not playing a hub season gives us an opportunity to re-engineer our league to be more financially viable in 2021 than we might have been if we had put all of our time and effort and resources into making a 2020 shortened season work. That’s precisely how we’re going to behave as if that’s the correct answer.
I would’ve much preferred to play this year. It would have been better for the league, better for the Ticats, and more fun for everyone. We would have gotten more money to our players had we been able to play. We weren’t able to pull it off. We’re playing sports, this is the best business in the world. We’re just playing football and we’ll get back to playing football.