HODGE: CFL should take lead from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, commit to playing in 2021

Screenshot courtesy: NBC Sports

One of the wisest things we can do in life is to learn from the mistakes of others.

Screenshot courtesy: NBC Sports

Several owners have reportedly told commissioner Gary Bettman that the NHL might be better off financially if they did not play the upcoming 2020-2021 season. Bettman has rebuked these suggestions and remains committed to playing.

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski reported the following:

According to several sources, a few owners have suggested to Bettman that the league might be better off financially if it shuts down next season, since playing in empty arenas could be crippling to the bottom line. The NHL is still very much a gate-driven league in comparison to a league like the NFL, which draws most of its revenue from media rights. Bettman responded that the NHL can’t lose a season because it’s too damaging in the long term, as the league has learned before in lockout seasons. So it’s a safe bet that there will be some version of the NHL next season, though it’s going to look different than what we’re used to.

Bettman has experienced three lockouts during his tenure as the commissioner of the NHL. The league lost the entire 2004-2005 season to a labour dispute, while lockouts in 1994-1995 and 2012-2013 shortened the regular season to 48 games.

The commissioner estimated that the NHL lost between $18 and $20 million dollars per day during its most recent lockout. Staff members in the league office were forced to accept pay cuts, while many teams were forced to lay off key employees.

Three lockouts in a relatively short period of time has hurt the NHL’s brand. Bettman knows this, which is why he’s committed to playing in 2020-2021 even if it ends up costing teams money in the short term.

This is the same issue that faces the CFL. The league cancelled its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was somewhat understandable.

The CFL is not a revenue-generating juggernaut like the NFL or NBA. It’s a league that relies heavily on gate revenue to record modest profits in its strongest markets, while the weaker ones struggle to break even.

The owners had the option of self-funding the 2020 season, which would have cost approximately $30 million. They elected not to, which resulted in the cancellation of the season.

In two weeks it will be the one-year anniversary of the 2019 Grey Cup. This means it has been almost 365 days since the CFL took the field to showcase its product.

The CFL is fun. It’s exciting. It’s the best brand of football played anywhere in the world.

You wouldn’t know that turning on the television these days. The NFL and NCAA found ways to play — imperfect as their plans may be — and are dominating the sports media landscape north and south of the border.

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At some point, it’s not a question of whether or not the CFL can afford to play; it becomes a question of whether or not the league can afford not to play.

The CFL will already look very different after missing the entire 2020 season. Hundreds of contracts will expire in February with salaries likely to shrink as a result of lost revenue. It is likely that many older veterans will retire as they shift their focus to new employment opportunities.

Overhauling rosters is tough on fans. A common complaint about the CFL since it instituted one-year contracts for veteran players in 2016 is the amount of turnover on rosters from year to year.

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Fans want to feel a sense of connection with their favourite players, which takes time to cultivate. It’s hard to become attached to a receiver or a linebacker when they’re on their third team in four years. Easy mobility is great for players, but it’s not optimal for fans.

Let’s also not forget that the XFL plans to return in the spring of 2022. If the CFL doesn’t play next season, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s league will scoop up a ton of talented players — young and old.

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I appreciate that the economy is bad and CFL owners have already lost a lot of money during this pandemic. I get it. The past eight months haven’t been easy for anyone.

With that said, the CFL can’t afford not to play in 2021. It’s that simple.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.