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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider


These are interesting times for the Canadian Football League.

Make no mistake, there have been times in CFL history when it’s faced real crisis – the folding of franchises, multiple bankruptcies, owners tossing the keys at the league office and running into the night, and teams having to financially prop up other teams.

But never in the long history of this league has it faced the degree of uncertainty it does as this moment – and that’s whether we’re talking about the next few months or the next few years.

The CFL and its teams believe there will be a 2021 season, just not right away.

For now, that decision rests primarily in the hands of the Ontario government, where a province drowning in the third wave of COVID-19 has neither the time nor desire to deal with the CFL’s request for approval of its return-to-play protocol.

That doesn’t mean it won’t deal with it anytime soon, but the optics of an announcement granting the CFL permission to operate in Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton while the rest of the province is in lockdown would be politically dangerous, to say the least.

People in Ontario are in no mood to see the CFL given the green light by the same government that has banned golf and other outdoor recreational sports until at least the last week of May.

So, assuming a start to the season is at least a month away, it’s easy to see why it behooves the league to announce the start of the season is being delayed. That’s exactly what it’s expected to do this week after the board of governors meets on the matter Tuesday.

What else the league might say is where this gets interesting.

The CFL desperately wants to give its stakeholders more clarity than it did a year ago, when there was a deafening silence through the spring and summer months before the season was cancelled. The challenge is that’s going to require some sort of commitment from all the teams to play, either when the governments say it’s okay or when fans are allowed back in stadiums.

The fans-in-the-stands issue is especially tricky as it’s impossible to guess where governments will come down (just ask the golf industry). It also remains unclear how many of the CFL’s nine teams are willing to make the commitment to play this season without fans.

Regardless, the league has to say something to build confidence that there will be a season and signal that we’re not in for a repeat of last year.

While all that is more than enough drama for any league to handle, it’s really just the opening act for the current state of the CFL.

The bigger story concerns the fate of the very league itself and whether the end of the CFL as we know it may be at hand.

The CFL was a tough business before COVID-19, especially in the league’s three biggest markets. While there are real concerns about the sustainability of all franchises in such an uncertain environment, that’s especially true in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver given the poor pre-pandemic economics for those franchises.

That’s where the XFL collaboration comes in, potentially opening up the CFL’s nine franchises to streams of U.S. television and sponsorship money, and better positioning a bigger league to take advantage of the fast-coming legal wagering environment.

The problem is that is going to require some dramatic change on this side of the border; everything from rewriting the football calendar to changing the number of downs.

That becomes emotional for some in this country.

There are those who see the CFL and three-down football as part of Canadian identity, a league woven through the history of our nation with experiences passed down from generation to generation.

In much of the country, that kind of thing disappeared at least a generation ago. But it’s not hard to find the diehards (on Twitter), the ones who say they would rather see the CFL and its nine teams die a natural death than sell their souls for spring football and American cash.

On the other side are those who believe that collaboration with the XFL could be not only the CFL’s lifeline but its road to prosperity. They accept that change is part of life, even if it means parting with such things as three downs and 110 yards. They just want to see nine teams playing professional football in Canada and are happy to see it under any set of rules or at any time of year.

Each side believes its perspective represents the best interests of professional football in Canada.

But, of course, this isn’t an election. The CFL’s nine franchises hold both this season and the league’s future in their hands.

We’re left to sit back and guess what they will do.