It was late-November in Calgary and the Grey Cup Festival was in full swing.
The mood around the Canadian Football League was upbeat, positive and almost teetering on the edge of being boastful about how good things were going.
CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie gave his annual State of the League address – touting the great successes of the CFL within the Canadian sporting landscape and beyond.
He talked about CFL 2.0, mainly focusing on the league’s international strategy to attract global players.
“I won’t ever apologize for thinking big for this league. I’ve always thought we’ve punched below our weight. We have to think bigger, and we will,” Ambrosie told CBC Sports just days before the 2019 Grey Cup.
“It is time for some good old-fashioned CFL swagger.”
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Within six short months that swagger has all but disappeared and the league has been brought to its knees by COVID-19. On Thursday, Ambrosie’s tune had changed as he made a desperate plea to the government for cash, asking for up to $150 million from the government.
He revealed CFL teams were bleeding money at a staggering rate, collectively losing anywhere from $10 to $20 million last season.
“I don’t mind telling you, this is humbling. But the fact is we need your support,” Ambrosie said.
“Our product is football. But what we really do is bring Canadians together.”
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Ambrosie then fielded questions via video conference from concerned and skeptical Members of Parliament, with many asking how the players would benefit from the millions the league is asking for.
“Why aren’t these wealthy owners not stepping up during this time?” MP Peter Julian asked.
For example, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, a multi-billion dollar company, owns and operates the Toronto Argos, Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC.
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Pitch falls flat
It would appear the CFL was hoping their sentimental pitch would resonate with Canadians and the government — Moshe Lander, a sports economist at Concordia University in Montreal, says it fell flat.
“I think it’s extremely bad optics they’re asking for money and trying to dress it up as some Canadian institution,” he said. “If you have to resort to that as your justification for money, then that shows you really don’t need the money.”
Lander also wants to know how the league came up with the $150 million figure.
“I think this is just opportunism. I don’t see this as a bailout. If this was a bailout, he’d call it a bailout,” he told CBC Sports.
“This is a case of, everyone is getting theirs, here’s a chance to get ours. Let’s dress it up in the flag and let’s see what we can get and what the public reaction is.”
Lander says it’s no secret the league has been “muddling” along for decades, with a revolving door of ownership groups, teams folding and the CFL generally just holding on by a thread.
“If you’re telling me that Ambrosie’s being honest about losing $20 million last year, then $150 million is seven years of loses,” he said.
“Why do you need a decade worth of losses now?”
Lander says if that’s the case, then there’s no way the CFL needs cash now to survive – whether they play or not, they’re still losing money, he says, and maybe just the same amount.
Beyond questions about the amount of the CFL’s ask, there’s even more doubt about the league’s intentions to pay it back.
“Even if it was sold as a loan it wouldn’t be,” said professor Craig Greenham from the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Windsor, who has studied the CFL’s financial landscape for years.
“We’ve seen this historically whether it’s come to tax abatements or rental breaks or flat out loans that are just never paid back or forgiven. We’ve seen this in the past and there’s no way the CFL is going to pay back $150 million. There’s no way in hell.”
On that point, Ambrosie insists the league wants to be accountable to taxpayers, to the earn the money and pay it back. But how exactly, is vague.
“We can share our in-stadium, online and broadcast assets so government can deliver important information,” Ambrosie told MPs. “And we can build on our track record of service to the community.”
Greenham also wonders about how the CFL came up with the ask of $150 million.
“I think ultimately when it comes to stuff like this, they’re going to ask for a lot of money whether or not they get it,” he said.
“They’re going to ask for a lot of money because I think they put their finger to the wind to see if federal government was willing to help out their industry.”
Greenham says this isn’t anything new, as the CFL has previously asked for public and government funding to stay alive. He points to the mid-90s when the NFL and then Canadian businesses pulled the league off the edge of a cliff.
“The CFL has come to the Canadian public, whether it’s the federal government, provincial government, the civic governments, with their hands out and asking for money and the governments have always been there,” he said.
“And I get the feeling the government will be there again for them just based on history. No government wants to be responsible for the death of the CFL.”
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CFL struggling in big city markets
Despite the rather bleak picture, there has been success in the West, specifically for the community-owned teams of Edmonton, Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg.
CBC Sports reviewed all three of the community-owned team’s most recent financial statements, which are made public every year.
What it revealed is an economic model revolving around people attending games.
For example, the league’s most successful franchise, Saskatchewan, posted a profit of upwards of $1.5 million in 2018 – half of the team’s revenue was earned through people attending the Roughriders home games.
“A ban on large gatherings means no revenue, no business, for us. We want to ensure it also does not mean no CFL for the future,” Ambrosie said.
The CFL has serious problems facing it when it comes to the country’s biggest markets. Despite their finances not being available, it’s no secret B.C., Toronto and Montreal have been bleeding money – a fact seemingly confirmed by Ambrosie.
Attendance continues to plummet in these locations. Last season, the Toronto Argonauts averaged 12,493 fans per game.
David Cynamon owned the Argos from 2003 to 2010, enduring economic failure for nearly a decade.
“In Toronto, it was a passion of love. It’s a big challenge. And it’s a struggle,” he said.
Cynamon says the league has always been near the edge of collapse even without COVID, and now faces its biggest challenge yet because for most teams, upwards of half of their revenue comes from gate sales.
“It’s a fan driven league at the gate, concessions, things like that. TV deals are not massive because we’re not a massive TV market,” he said.
“When you’re living on the edge financially anyway and then you take away a material amount of your revenue and your in-stadium advertising and everything that comes with it, it cannot function and it doesn’t work.”
Cynamon says he could accept the league dying because a new generation of fans don’t want to go to games or watch on TV, but has a hard time accepting that it would be a pandemic forcing the league to shutter.
“I can’t accept the bullet being shot from the gun by something of a pandemic like this that nobody asked for,” he said.
“This is an invisible enemy that we relied on government to protect us from and I just don’t believe in economic lines being drawn when it’s nobody’s fault.”
That’s why Cynamon believes the government needs to help the CFL and inevitably will. He also says while the teams, players, coaches and management are being affected, it has much more of an impact on the Canadians employed to help support the league.
“Those individuals that were working the concession or the jersey stores or the beer concession or selling magazines, they are the people that are affected,” he said.
“It’s all just us Canadians behind it and that’s the real unfortunate suffering that goes on and that’s the part that really bothers me the most.”