The Canadian Football League has put together a new a game plan for the 2021 season and the hope now is that COVID-19 will be kind enough to let them see it through.
That was the main takeaway from Wednesday's announcement, which included broadly detailed plans for a 14-game season to begin Aug. 5, with the Grey Cup to be played in Hamilton on Dec. 12. That's, of course, a shift from the original start date of June 10, and four fewer games than a traditional 18-game campaign.
What hasn't changed, though, is the CFL's reliance on the country's ever-evolving battle against the coronavirus. And while league commissioner Randy Ambrosie appeared to be definitive with his opening sentence of his prepared press release — "We will play football in 2021" — he actually can't guarantee anything at this point in the game.
"The only two guarantees in life are death and taxes," Ambrosie said in an interview with the Free Press. "We can't because you can't promise me we're going to see the end of the COVID crisis in June or July or August."
While help from the football gods is a big part of this, it's not the only thing the CFL is relying on. The logic behind an Aug. 5 start is to do with the federal government's prediction that a majority of Canadians will be vaccinated by July 1. The theory is the more people vaccinated, the less COVID-19 can play a role in deciding the league's future.
The CFL had the unfortunate reality of being unable to operate a 2020 season owing to the pandemic, despite last-ditch efforts to bring a bubble environment to Winnipeg last fall. There are no plans to have a similar format this season, as that plan also doesn't pass the financial sniff test.
The league's board of governors met Tuesday to talk about delaying the season and Ambrosie said there is a strong desire by club executives to play this year. Coaching staffs are in place and rosters are filled. And contingency plans are there if they need them.
He added that by mid-June the league would have to make a decision on whether it can reach the new Aug. 5 deadline.
"We're looking at everything. But what we're expressing here is the honest, sincere desire to get this league playing again." – CFL league commissioner Randy Ambrosie
"We're looking at everything. But what we're expressing here is the honest, sincere desire to get this league playing again," Ambrosie said. "I think we have a reasonable and rational plan, which was based on public health input, that we should have a lot of feedback in hand by early June. We were told by public health officials that they feel by early June they're going to be able to tell us a lot more than they can today."
There are two important caveats attached to the new plan, including getting approval from the federal and provincial governments on their return-to-play plans.
Under the current restrictions in Ontario, which affects teams in Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto, none of these clubs would be allowed to take the field for practice, let alone play in a game on home soil. Canada's border is currently closed to non-essential workers and CFL players living in the U.S. and elsewhere are not permitted to enter the country.
The CFL does have a plan in the event Ontario's numbers don't ease up, and that's to open the season with all games being played in the western parts of Canada. It appears Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta all seem primed to welcome three-down football back, while the provincial government in B.C. is in a similar mind space as Ontario, as they battle an outbreak of new and relentless COVID-19 variants.
"Most likely we will start playing in the prairies and we'll bring teams from the east out to the prairies for a few weeks, months," Winnipeg Football Club president and CEO Wade Miller said. "We're willing to be creative if it means playing CFL football this season."
What also must happen is teams will need to be allowed to "host a significant number of fans in the stands, in a significant number of venues at the start of the season, and in the rest of our venues after that, so a 2021 season is financially tenable for our clubs."
As it stands, the CFL relies on more than 60 per cent of its overall revenue from ticket sales, and without the paying public in the stands it simply doesn't make financial sense. With the CFL unsuccessful in securing a loan from the federal government, and the lucrative owners for the privately run teams unwilling to dig even deeper into their pockets beyond what will already be a money-losing season, the league remains at the mercy of hoping things will be safe enough to allow sizeable crowds.
Miller said that the benchmark number of fans varies from team to team. He hopes that by August he can maybe get to half capacity – with a full house allowed by season's end – but he also knows it will be up to provincial health experts to make the final decision. And right now they already have enough on their plate.
What he can say for certain is that they won't be pulling out all the stops to celebrate the 2019 Grey Cup champion Bombers until a full crowd can take it in. Miller does plan to have a smaller ceremony in the first game back, but it's important, he said, that all season ticket holders and fans who want to help honour the team's triumphant run get that chance.
Such is life during an ongoing global health crisis.
"You can only plan for as many scenarios that you can. We're in a little bit of a holding pattern and we got to be patient, which patience isn't exactly in my vocabulary," Miller said. "We'd like to be able to say here's exactly what we're doing but we'll just keep building contingency plans and be ready to go."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.