CFL’s 2021 return to play plan: hope and pray for widespread COVID-19 vaccine

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Canadian Football League’s return-to-play plan is based on a hope and a prayer.

The NHL and NBA completed 2020 seasons in hub cities and have already targeted return dates for next season.

The NCAA and NFL and are playing football, although there has been lots of positive coronavirus tests that forced schedule changes.

The Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and Major League Soccer are playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the CFL is waiting and crossing its fingers for a vaccine.

“Much of the news has been that we’re seeing a spike and governments and health care officials are asking us to be careful, but it’s hard to ignore that there is some good news happening,” Ambrosie said in his state of the league address at Grey Cup Unite week.


Anticipating what Ambrosie would say next, it seemed as though he would divulge a multi-faceted plan for the league to return to play in 2021. Full stadiums are ideal, but 50 percent attendance, no fans in the stands, and hub city or bubble models are all possibilities for which the league should be prepared — vaccine or not. Instead, the commish relayed the news of the day.

“First we had Pfizer come out with its vaccine. This morning we woke up to the wonderful news that Moderna look like they’ve got a vaccine. There’s lots of reasons to feel optimistic about 2021,” Ambrosie said.

Yes, in a perfect world the highly-anticipated vaccine would be approved, distributed and eradicate the virus or at least greatly diminishes its impact. However, the CFL needs to be adaptable and that doesn’t appear to be a trait the league has in its skillset.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has admitted Canadian franchises such as the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, are still operating at a loss — similar to a handful of CFL organizations. On the flip side, franchise values are improving and playing through the virus has been viewed as an investment in the league’s future.

The Canadian Elite Basketball League executed a Summer Series, crowning a 2020 champion without a vaccine and reported zero positive coronavirus cases.

The Canadian Premier League executed The Island Games, crowning a 2020 champion without a vaccine and reported zero positive coronavirus cases.

The NHL was given the go ahead to bring players from around the world into Toronto and Edmonton without a vaccine and reported zero positive coronavirus cases. The teams played down to a Stanley Cup champion — Tampa Bay Lightning — in the Alberta capital.

“I am hoping that as this vaccine story continues to develop, and the vaccine starts to find its way into our communities, that the border restriction issue will start to change and we’ll see the border opening,” Ambrosie said.

“That will give an opportunity for our players from the U.S. and around the world to enter Canada. It’s early, the nice thing is it’s only the middle of November, and we’ve still got lots of time.”

In fairness, the CEBL and CPL require a smaller amount of players and league personnel to operate when they managed to bring players over the border following government guidelines. The sheer volume of people involved raises the three-down league’s level of difficulty to play, but the NHL did it with 24 teams and 52 people per squad, which equaled 1,248 split between two cities. That’s why relying on outside forces isn’t a prudent approach for the CFL.

“The announcement of the second vaccine today only serves to give us more optimism that it’s the right time now to start zeroing in on a specific scenario to get back to play in 2021,” Ambrosie said.

“The scenario that we’ll go with has yet to be determined. It is obviously going to be informed by how the health crisis plays out.”

Regardless of the factors, Gary Bettman found a way in Canada, Mike Morreale found a way in Canada, and David Clanachan found a way in Canada. It’s time for Ambrosie and the board of governors to do the same instead of putting two hands together and looking to the heavens for a miracle vaccine.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.