When commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced the official postponement of the CFL season on Wednesday, he placed an important caveat on the targeted August 5th start date: fans in the stands.
Specifically, the CFL will require government permission for “a significant number of fans in the stands in a significant number of venues at the start of the season.” While the league left that criteria vague, we now know what “significant” looks like in at least one CFL city.
“We’ve been working with BC Place on a formula of about 17 to 18 percent of the lower deck, which would put us somewhere around 4,000 to 5,000. Nothing is written in stone yet. I think personally, I’d be satisfied if we could get that in and start playing,” B.C. Lions president Rick LeLacheur told reporters following the commissioner’s announcement.
“I know every stadium is different, but if we could get 4,000 to 5,000, then I think I’d be quite comfortable in proceeding on that basis.”
That 4,000-fan threshold could end up mattering to far more than just Lions fans. With the pandemic’s third wave still ripping through Quebec and Ontario, the CFL could front-load games in fan-friendly western jurisdictions while awaiting eastern approval.
While LeLacheur knows what capacity his organization is comfortable with, he can’t speak for the rest of the league and ultimately the voice that matters most will be the provincial government.
“Everybody has a different model and it doesn’t matter what your model is or what your desire is, it’s going to come down to what provincial health officers approve. We just don’t know what that will be at each facility right now,” he admitted frankly.
Fans remain the most important factor but the Lions have already received tentative approval from the B.C. government on their return-to-play proposal. The team remains in a unique situation, seeking approval to operate from three separate health authorities: one for games at BC Place, another for their Surrey practice facility, and a third in Kamloops, where they still intend to host training camp.
The Lions anticipate that will commence the usual three weeks before the regular season opener and are hopeful that not only their American and Canadians players will be vaccinated before they gather.
A vaccinated roster — and hopefully fan base — could help expand those attendance projections for an retractable roof, open-air stadium like BC Place. The goal of maximized attendance is shared by all stakeholders, even those who make the tough public health decisions.
“I do know this, that the government of B.C. will do all they can to help us in getting back not only to play, but also trying to get as many fans as we can into B.C. Place,” LeLacheur insisted.
Full stadiums are not something he’s anticipating at any point — even if they are allowed elsewhere — and there will be no recouping the losses absorbed in 2020 from gate revenue alone. The CFL reportedly lost between $60 and $80 million last year and the Lions were no exception, with government subsidies providing by far their largest source of revenue.
The losses will continue to build this year but as LeLacheur sees it, getting back on the field is about more than the bottom-line.
“We will clearly have a loss this year and with playing it will be a bigger loss than it was last year. We know that and going forward this is all about, at least in my opinion, trying to get as many games as we can in for the players more so than we are for our revenues, because they’re not substantial going forward,” he acknowledged.
That’s a harbinger of tumultuous times to come, but for right now the CFL has a path set for live football in 2021 and fans in Vancouver have something to look forward to.