CFL has received verbal return to play approval from four provinces, full season still hinges on fans in stands: Lalji

Screengrab courtesy: TSN

With COVID rates on the rise once again and Canada being forced into lockdown once again, it’s hard to be optimistic about the prospect of a 2021 CFL season.

Behind the scenes however, serious progress is being made on the return to play proposals submitted to each of the six CFL hosting provinces according to Farhan Lalji.

“Everything has been very positively received. Six provinces have return to play protocols in their hands and my understanding is four have already given them some form of verbal approval. Some have formal letters, some don’t, but there’s been some sort of formal or informal approval given by four of the provinces,” Lalji told Derek Taylor on The SportsCage Wednesday.

“Once they get approval from all six provinces, then they can go to the federal government and then the federal government at that point will then start making immigration related decisions.”

The CFL is awaiting feedback after presenting to one of the two holdout provinces, while a formal presentation has not yet occurred in the other.

Once provincial approval is granted in all jurisdictions, the buck is passed to the federal government to allow American players and staff passage, with the prospect of prompt approval particularly high.

“They’re leaving these health and safety protocols up to the provinces but ultimately the feds still have to make a decision to let people in, which we certainly believe they will based on a seven day quarantine much like is happening in the NHL,” Lalji explained.

“Those protocols the NHL is going to be using at the trade deadline and things like that are virtually identical to what the CFL is putting out there in terms of lengths of quarantine and testing that has to take place during the quarantine.”

Given the optics, the federal government can’t set a higher bar for the CFL than the NHL so the immigration conversation might be one of the easiest aspects, though approval does not equal a guaranteed full 18-game season with an on-time start.

“Just because they get approval on return to play and having American players allowed to come in, we still have a big gap to go on the financial side before we can get a date to begin training camps,” Lalji warned.

CFL owners have yet to express willingness to play any significant amount of games without fans and preferably none at all given the gate driven financial realities of the CFL. While teams are talking with government on that front, everything has taken a backseat to the rising third wave.

“Ontario, even though they had the first discussion on the hockey side, now that that province is dealing with they’re dealing with I can’t imagine that that decision has gotten any farther down the line in the last week and a half. In British Columbia, I know those discussions for fans in the stands had been happening, but when you look at what’s happening here with the variants and record numbers of cases, over a thousand a day, I don’t think that’s going to go fast,” Lalji said.

“I’m not saying it’s a non-starter, I’m just saying that it’s difficult to get an audience with the provincial health officer and the provincial government right now.”

The time for the CFL to make a final decision on a delayed or shortened season is fast approaching and while all remain committed to playing, owners will not accept more losses happily.

The league has already reached out to stake holders to see how they can ease the burden, including proposing a 20% pay cut to players for games played without fans, but the final decision on a start date will come down to one thing.

“How badly do you want you to start with no fans?,” Lalji asked rhetorically.

“Because ultimately this going to come down to an educated guess, and that is the hard part because we’re no further along than we were 13 months ago.”