It’s bubble or bust for the Canadian Football League.
The CFL has revealed precious little about any plans in its attempt to play football starting in September.
But as the picture of what this summer and fall is going to look like in Canada becomes clearer, it isn’t hard to rationally deduce that a bubble format is the only way the league could play a shortened season. Maybe it's one city, maybe it's two. But that has to be the course.
The NBA and MLS are going into bubbles, while the NHL is going into two. Major League Baseball will not, if it plays at all.
All the obvious concerns about the CFL’s ability to operate this fall can be addressed with the bubble model. All but one, that is – the economics. (More on that later.)
At the top of that list is players contracting COVID-19 from someone in the public or, even more importantly, players giving it to a member of the public.
The latter concern has to have caught the attention of provincial governments worried about the potential of a COVID-19 outbreak from players crossing the border from the U.S., where infection rates are increasing in many areas.
CFL teams each have about 60 players under contract who are currently residing in the U.S., which means having more than 500 players, plus coaches, entering the country – many coming directly from such hot-zone states such as Florida, Texas or the Carolinas. There could also be concerns about players within Canada bringing the virus with them from one part of the country to another.
Creating a bubble that players could enter for the duration of the season would address that completely. It would also give the league a way around the mandatory 14-day quarantine for those crossing from the United States, as players could serve their quarantine within the bubble and engage in significant physical activity, if not actually practice.
Eliminating travel is another key, since there is real concern about the possibility that someone among each team’s 46 players, 11 coaches and multiple support staff could become infected during transportation or while in a visiting city.
Players would live within the bubble and not be allowed to leave until their season is done.
The challenges of such a model are obvious. Housing nine football teams in one city, or four in one city and five in another, would be a significant logistical operation. Players may have to agree to prorated wages, or perhaps less, which might not be worth it for some. And there’s always the danger something could go wrong.
Back in March and April, it was possible to imagine a world where the change of seasons had all but erased COVID-19 and the CFL might be able to carry on per usual. But that fantasy is now gone. The world isn’t going to change very much between now and whatever the CFL considers its drop-dead date, which most figure to be sometime in mid-July.
Teams will not be able to operate within their home cities and risk outbreaks by travelling every second week, even in a shortened schedule.
Even a model where multiple teams occupy the same city seems far-fetched at this point, as jurisdictions understand how high the stakes are for keeping COVID-19 under control.
Yes, you could test every player. But along with the risk of false negatives, allowing players to come and go within the community raises the possibility that one of them could bring the virus to the locker room.
Based on current provincial health regulations, it may not even be legal to stage CFL games this summer or fall without some kind of exemption for being separated from the public, as in a bubble.
The challenge in all of this is going to be money. With limited or no gate for games, the CFL is cut off from its biggest revenue source. While a hub-city model would eliminate travel expenses, there would be other additional costs, such as housing and feeding players, and having the staff to make the whole operation work safely.
So why doesn’t the league just come out and say all of this? Why aren’t the players in on exactly where the thinking is, like they have been in leagues such as the NBA and NHL?
The answer may be in the mystery over whether the CFL has its own house in order.
Several sources say they believe that not every team believes playing this season is the best course of action, and that the prudent thing is to pull the plug and move towards 2021.
This has never been a point of debate in other leagues, as the television money in the NBA, NHL and MLB makes the risk worth the reward. Even MLS, without a megabucks TV contract, came out of the chute and quickly committed to finding a way to play, which it will do next month at a tournament in Orlando.
But in the CFL it’s always been an open question about whether playing this season is the best course of action, with some of the arguments economic and some of them not.
Before the CFL can move any closer to a season, it has to decide two things. The first is whether it is fully committed to having a season, if at all logistically and safely possible. There's an economic component to that decision as well, but the league must have a handle on what the financial risks are at this point.
If the answer is no, then start the clock on 2021 and give players and coaches the clarity they deserve so they can make decisions for themselves and their families.
If it’s yes, then pick a model, tell players, coaches and fans, and take the necessary steps to see if it can work. That’s going to involve a lot of tense conversations with the players, sponsors, governments and the league’s broadcast partner, TSN. There’s not a lot of time to put things together.
It may not be reasonable to expect a CFL season, given all the league is facing. But at this stage, a little clarity is a mild ask.