Not many people have as deep a tie to the CFL as Jim Lawson.
The former chair of the league’s Board of Governors and two-time interim commissioner has had four generations of his family involved with the league but shared some hard truths about its financial realities on The Rod Pedersen Show Friday.
“My grandfather was involved in the league. My father was a Grey Cup champion. My daughter was involved in the league and I’ve been involved in the league. I love the Canadian football league and I think it’s so important to the heritage of this country and what we’re all about,” Lawson said.
“You’ve crossed past this line of trying to decide if football is important to this country. I love the sport of football but the economic model is broken.”
That has been true since Lawson was appointed chairman in 2013.
“One of the first things that I did was try and understand the economic model of the league and under the current framework, I think it’s very difficult — as has been well-published –in the major cities, and in particular Toronto and Montreal. I do think that there’s a need to look at the economic model,” Lawson explained.
Those problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, causing the league to lose between $60 and $80 million dollars last year. That distress has prompted the league to reach out to the XFL in pursuit of a partnership between the two leagues.
The CFL has been awarding the Grey Cup for over 100 years. Meanwhile, the original XFL lasted one full season in 2001. The XFL lasted just part of one season before the COVID-19 pandemic put their season on hold, which led to Vince McMahon filing for bankruptcy.
Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital were selected as the winning bidders last August for all of the assets of Alpha Entertainment LLC, the parent company of the XFL. It cost $15 million and the goal is to make the XFL a stable league in the future.
The CFL shares that hope and RedBird Capital brings stability to the table with $4 billion in capital. While CFL purists are up in arms, Lawson urges open-mindedness.
“Your sentiments [against the XFL] are not unique and I’m sure not unique to many involved in the league, but my view of this right now is to keep an open mind,” he said.
“I know that the people involved in the league are sensitive to the same issues you are, but they are in definitely a challenging position.”
The XFL has the potential to make the CFL relevant in the massive US market and opens up another revenue stream Lawson is familiar with: gambling.
As CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, Lawson lives in the world of betting and is encouraged by the impending passage of Bill C-218 in Canada, which would legalize single game sports betting. Similar legislation is nearing in many US states and the opportunities for the CFL are massive if the XFL gets their foot in the door.
“When you think about football in the United States and the opportunity, we haven’t seen seen sports betting in California yet. We haven’t seen sports betting in Florida yet. When you think of that market, what’s the behemoths in US sports betting? It’s the National Football League. Well, the National Football League doesn’t run in April and September and there’s an opportunity there as a revenue producer that not a lot of people have been talking about,” Lawson explained.
“When I think of how this is going to play out in terms of the value of franchises and what it means, not just to to football franchises but all sports franchises and hopefully trickling down to amateur sports, there’s something to this sports betting world opening up.”
As any racetrack operator will tell you, betting on the ponies is always a good idea. And Jim Lawson is no different.