CFL ‘never going to play without fans in the stands,’ Labour Day start ‘a strong hunch’: Naylor

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie broke his public silence on Thursday to reassure fans of the three down league that plans for the 2021 season were on schedule, but not everybody is convinced.

The comments were regarded with some skepticism by fans who have seen Ambrosie’s cheery outlook crumble before and the commissioner’s promises continue to fall short of an outright guarantee for the coming season.

Such a guarantee likely isn’t coming any time soon, as TSN’s Dave Naylor reports that all nine teams are not yet committed to playing a full season under all circumstances. As Naylor wrote for TSN.ca, their reluctance has to do with the core of the CFL’s business model.

“The reason [certainty] doesn’t exist has to do with the core problem the pandemic has presented to the CFL from the beginning: its business model cannot function without fans in the stands. 

That hasn’t changed in a year for a league where as much as 60 per cent of all team revenue is tied in some way to home game activity. There is no alternative business plan for this league. Fans can wish for it all they want. It doesn’t exist.

The only way the 2021 CFL season can start on time is if fans are allowed back in stadiums to a meaningful degree by the middle of June, or if governments guarantee that decision is on the way (although nothing is really guaranteed in a pandemic).”

The CFL will be stuck lobbying federal, provincial and municipal governments in order to get those butts in seats, but ultimately the pace and success of Canada’s vaccine rollout plan will be the biggest determining factor.

The latest projection released by the federal government on Thursday predicts that 14.5 million Canadians will get the jab by the end of June, with 10 million additional immunizations possible if other vaccine candidates are approved.

While that is good news for stadium capacity, it’s still slower than the CFL’s own timeline. The CFL unveiled its 2021 schedule back in November, with the pre-season is scheduled to begin on Sunday, May 23 and the regular season is slated to get underway on Thursday, June 10.

Stadium capacity may not be feasible that early in the summer and Naylor writes that there is a strong belief that the season will be delayed, making Ambrosie’s promises of a full 18-game schedule nothing but a pipe dream.

“The strong hunch from all directions is that the league will open training camps in mid-summer and be playing by Labour Day, by which time it’s anticipated that significant percentages of the stadiums will be opened. 

This scenario, besides allowing teams to avoid the risk of having to open the season without fans in the stands, would shorten the schedule by roughly half. That would drastically reduce teams’ loses for this season, which would suit the owners just fine.”

Generating any sort of revenue is essential for a league that absorbed losses of between $60 and $80 million while not playing last season, but not all forms of play make financial sense.

Fans are staring down the barrel of a delayed and shortened season, which Naylor insists is the only thing that makes sense.

“The fact is that this league is never going to play without fans in the stands. Not last year, not this year, not ever.”

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