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Ed Willes: Surviving the economics of the COVID-19 crisis only strategy for CFL right now

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

For a split second, it almost sounded like Randy Ambrosie was delivering good news Wednesday.

The CFL, the commissioner announced, is looking at a September restart and while Regina will no longer host the 2020 Grey Cup, the league’s marquee event could be held in December.

That’s positive, right? At least it’s something. Before Wednesday’s virtual town hall, Ambrosie wasn’t saying much of anything. Now, he’s offering dates and timelines and, while they aren’t exactly etched in stone, a picture is emerging of what might be.

So hang on to that thought and dare to dream about a world with live sports in another three months. Sure, Ambrosie also said; “Please note that we are not announcing or promising a return this fall. We’re just letting our fans know this remains one of the possible scenarios for 2020.

“A cancelled season is also possible.”

But isn’t there always a catch these days.

As he tries to salvage something out of the 2020 season, Ambrosie stepped into an information void Wednesday and did his best to clarify the league’s situation.

The problem, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic provides so little clarity and as Ambrosie attempted to provide some answers in a carefully choreographed setting, much remained unanswered.

The border between Canada and the U.S., for starters, will remain closed for at least another month. Given the mess that currently exists south of the border, it will likely be longer.

Barring a medical miracle before Labour Day, the best option for the CFL is to play in front of a limited number of fans who practise social distancing. That sounds simple enough until you consider all the measures that will have to be put in place by a league with severe budgetary constrictions. Then it’s not as easy.

The bio-dome concept, you ask? Again, it sounds like a possibility until you start thinking about nine teams, some 500 players, lord knows how many others in football operations, stadium maintenance, transportation and food-handling, all existing in the same bubble or two bubbles for up to three months, and things get complicated very quickly.

“I’d love to play this fall the way we usually play but that’s not in the cards,” said B.C. Lions president Rick LeLacheur. “The second choice would be playing with social distancing and No. 3 would be just to play.”

LeLacheur was asked about Vancouver’s suitability as a hub city. Given B.C.’s enviable record of containing the coronavirus, that seems like it might be plausible.

“It’s a challenge here for us because we don’t control the building,” LeLacheur said of B.C. Place Stadium.

Yeah. Forgot about that.

The loss of the Grey Cup, meanwhile, registers as a profound disappointment for the loyal fans in Saskatchewan and if there’s one thing the CFL can take to the bank, literally, it’s that the Cup will be a staggering success in Regina.

As it turns out, the pandemic even changes that. Ambrosie announced Regina will host the 2022 game, 2021 will be played in Hamilton and this year’s championship will be hosted by the finalist with the better regular-season record.

That’s assuming there’s a Cup this season. Or in 2021. Or in 2022.

“There’s just no way you could work on a festival with so many unknowns,” said LeLacheur.

The league, finally, addressed the contentious subject of ticket refunds Wednesday. Or at least they tried to. Ambrosie urged ticket-holders to get in touch with individual teams to discuss the next step and the preferred option would be to keep their money in place in exchange for incentives.

On Wednesday, the Leos sent out an email to their season-ticket base outlining those incentives, which include credits for next year, credits for other tickets and discounts on merchandising. With the business of the league shut down, season-ticket money is one of the few revenue streams available to clubs. That money is crucial.

Refunds, on the other hand, present some serious challenges.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be a shortened season or no season,” said LeLacheur. “We sent out information on both. Obviously, we’d like them to stick with us.”

Still, the one carrot the Lions can hold out is, suddenly, they’re in a position to host the Cup. Just spitballing here but if a championship game is played in December, the guess is the CFL would be OK with Vancouver acting as the host city over, say Winnipeg or Edmonton. Yes, the Lions were 5-13 last year, but, as we’ve seen, the form chart is out the window these days.

“Right now it’s survive the crisis,” said Ambrosie. “That’s our strategy.”

And right now that’s a sound strategy, largely because it’s the only one available.

Twitter.com/willesonsports

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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