Back again: CFL asks federal government for financial assistance to return to play

The Canadian Football League has once again approached the federal government for financial aid in an effort to return to play.

In 2020, the league asked for a $30 million interest-free loan, however, it was denied by the feds. That answer ultimately led the board of governors voting to cancel the season. The league has stated it never stopped discussions with the federal government since the denial last August.

“The CFL was looking for a $30 million interest-free loan or nothing — that was their prerogative,” a government source said.

There was still government money that helped the league’s franchises last year. For example, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers collected $3.1 million in aid from the government, including $2.9 million from the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy. If the rest of the teams and league office collected similar amounts, which is a reasonable assumption without seeing the accounting numbers, the total would come in over $30 million — it’s unclear how much of those funds went to the players.

As the figures show, just because the government said no to the CFL’s ultimatum doesn’t mean they didn’t pitch in. The league knows it because commissioner Randy Ambrosie and his group have gone hat in hand again. It is safe to assume that $30 million would be a starting point for the league — the same amount they asked for at the finish line last year. Remember the initial ask from Ambrosie was up to $150 million — infamously.

“I get it, we’ve put out a quarter-of-a-trillion dollars of supports within the last year alone,” a government source said.

There are ongoing high-level conversations with the federal government as the two sides work to find common ground. There are more programs and avenues available for employees and organizations to obtain funding since last August.

For example, the Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program provides businesses heavily impacted by COVID-19 guaranteed access to low-interest loans of $25,000 to $1 million to cover operational cash flow needs.

“Any time that you’ve got a request for financial support or working with the federal government, there is an expectation that there is financial transparency,” a government source said.

“We’re not going to make a big bet if it just means it’s going to fold right away. The Canadian government wants to make sure the CFL is around for years to come.”

If the CFL really wants money above and beyond the assistance made available by the government, the league should expect to show they are going to be able to remain financially solvent for years to come. Put a proper plan together of how the money will be spent and open up the books.

That’s never happened in the recent history of the CFL, just ask the CFL Players’ Association. Even the legitimacy of the community-owned financial reports has been drawn into question. Reportedly the CFL lost between $60 and $80 million without a season in 2020, but the details are critical.

The federal government recognizes the CFL’s cultural importance to Canada. As one government source pointed out, the value of the league should not be undersold because all of its teams are based in Canada. Hockey is unquestionably the No. 1 sport in the country, but 24 of the 31 franchises in the NHL are based in the United States — 77 percent of the league.

The NHL finished its 2020 season without any subsidies from governments on either side of the border. Using two hub cities in Canada, Toronto and Edmonton, the Stanley Cup was won by the Tampa Bay Lightning. And the current playing within the all-Canadian division was given the go-ahead by various levels of governments after a 600-plus page plan was submitted.

That does create blueprints for the CFL, but the financial resources put into the health and safety components by the NHL were extensive. It’s not as simple as the CFL following the same outline because the owners have not shown a willingness to invest in the same amount of testing, which is just one example, as the NHL.

Even though the individual team bubbles were set up, and the NHL teams were playing with no fans in the stands, the Vancouver Canucks had a coronavirus outbreak run through the organization. It was “pause for concern” for people within the federal government. Despite detailed and extensive protocols, along with the funds to back the plans up, the virus still worked its way in and wreaked havoc.

“When you get more and more people vaccinated, as the numbers ramp up, you start looking at sports in a very different dynamic compared to what we’re looking at right now with the NHL,” a government source said.

“When it comes to seeing CFL this year, definitely there is a possibility of that. It would be great if we could get some Canadian football this summer, but I wouldn’t put a date on it at this point.”

There are 44 million doses of vaccines expected before the end of June, and over 100 million doses expected by the end of September. The federal government secures and brings in the vaccines, then hands them off to the provinces for deployment. Any potential kick-off is tied to how quickly needles get into arms.

However, there is some frustration right now about how the roll out is going in various provinces. Recently there has been a lot of anger directed at provincial leaders — notably premier Doug Ford in Ontario — as vaccines sit in freezers and haven’t been administered as quickly as Canadians want.

If the roll out of vaccines ramps up quickly as doses keep coming into the country in the millions each week, the possibilities of opening up increase. A number of provincial governments have started to state that could happen as soon as the beginning of summer.

“You take away kids, people who can’t get a shot, people who won’t get a shot, and you start to get really close to almost everybody getting one vaccine very soon,” a government source said.

There are a lot of hypothetical timelines out there or best-case scenarios. However, if the vaccines are widely administered, but turn out not to be effective against the variants, the best laid plans change quickly. It’s just part of the uncertainty with a largely unknown and unprecedented virus.

The federal government doesn’t want to rush putting football back on the field just for the sake of tradition from a health and safety perspective as well as the financial aspect. All parties want to ensure if the season starts, it can actually end with a Grey Cup and not have to be paused, or worse, cancelled part way through. That would be a complete waste of money, time, and effort — lots of risk.

“Politicians aren’t here to police every Canadian, but we’ve all got to remember it’s a collective responsibility,” a government source said.

“We want to see Canadian football happening as soon as possible, but we need to see a healthy and safe way of doing it.”

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