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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider


How quickly things change during these unprecedented times.

Four weeks ago, when the coronavirus outbreak forced the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League to shut down their seasons, it appeared the Canadian Football League had the calendar on its side.

If the sports world was going to pause for just a couple of months, that would line up well with the slated opening of CFL training camps on May 17.

By last week, the league had been forced to postpone the start of training camps indefinitely, followed by Tuesday’s announcement that the season will not begin before July. It wasn't so much a decision by the league as a simple acknowledgement that several jurisdictions with CFL teams aren’t allowing sporting events or mass gatherings.

We know there can’t be a season as long as there are government restrictions on public gatherings. We’re not talking about gatherings of 200 people – we’re talking about gatherings of 20,000-plus, because no CFL team could operate without fans in the stands.

It’s simple economics.

Since we have the advantage of three publicly owned teams that publish and post their balance sheets, let’s use the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 2018 (the most recent data available) as an example of why CFL teams can’t operate without stadium crowds.

The Blue Bombers, one of the CFL's healthiest franchises, had roughly $12 million in ticket revenue in 2018, which made up just over 35 per cent of the team’s overall $33.4 million revenue stream.

How many businesses could operate minus 35 per cent of their revenue? Not many. In the CFL, the answer is none.

Which is why the league's focus is no doubt shifting to a late-summer beginning of the season, with a reduced schedule and fans in the stands.

How practical that may be from an economic standpoint and how difficult that may be to pull together logistically is impossible to say right now. But we know it won't be simple.

Among the things that will come into consideration is how able people will be to pay for tickets, how comfortable they will be sitting in a stadium and what kind of appetite sponsors will have to step to the plate.

It's understandable that many around the CFL are starting to wonder if a 2020 season is feasible – even if the coronavirus situation greatly improves by July, the border opens, and the government decides to lift bans on mass gatherings.

Major leagues like the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, with more diverse revenue streams and massive franchise equity, are far better equipped to withstand the current uncertain environment. But for any of these leagues, the most important decisions may be made for them.

So, what's the long-term damage to the CFL if it can't play in 2020?

Let's be clear: virtually every business is going to be hit hard by this crisis. But the notion that the CFL would be irreparably harmed by missing a season seems misplaced. Fans were furious with players and owners when the National Hockey League shut down for an entire season in 2004-05, but they all came running back.

There’s no reason to think that CFL fans who were there at the end if the 2019 season won't be there at the start of the 2021 campaign, notwithstanding whatever tough economic choices many will face when it comes to things like season tickets.

It might feel awfully strange to hit the start of summer without the CFL underway.

But then again, in the current context, it’s really not so strange at all.