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O’Leary: 5 Takeaways from the commissioner’s town hall

In the opening minutes of his town hall with season ticket holders, commissioner Randy Ambrosie confirmed what many have had in the back of their minds over the last two months.

The CFL’s 18-game schedule will not be played in 2020. With provincial governments across the country saying that large public gatherings can’t be held through to at least Sept. 1, the CFL is now looking at the possibilities of an abbreviated season for its teams with a September start date.

“We’ve announced three things today,” Ambrosie told CFL.ca’s Brodie Lawson over the course of a 30-minute town hall held on this site.

“The strategy for our season, the cancellation of our Touchdown Atlantic game…and a change to our 2020 Grey Cup strategy.

“I think we’ve learned three things trying to run a pro sports league during a pandemic. The first is that certainty is really hard to come by. There are lots of scenarios to consider but in the end, public safety and the safety of our players is the most important consideration. All of that has gone into the announcements that we’ve made today.”

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Commissioner Randy Ambrosie addressed the complications that COVID-19 has posed for the CFL and its hopes of having a 2020 season (Photo: CFL.ca)

Given the restrictions on large public gatherings that are in place through provinces across the country and the ongoing closure of the Canadian/U.S. border, the 2020 season won’t be able to start until September at earliest.

The Touchdown Atlantic game, scheduled for July 25 in Halifax, N.S., has been cancelled.

The third item, the shift away from Regina hosting the 2020 Grey Cup and taking on the game and its festivities in 2022, may hit fans in the heartland of Canadian Football the hardest of all. If the league is able to have a season this year, the Grey Cup host in 2020 would be determined by a win-and-host model. The Grey Cup participant with the best regular-season record would be the host team for the game.

With possible schedule adjustments ahead, there is a chance that the Grey Cup game could take place in December. The 2021 Grey Cup in Hamilton is still scheduled to take place as planned.

The commissioner covered a lot of ground in the town hall. Here are some of the main takeaways.

1. GIVING RIDERVILLE A PROPER GREY CUP FESTIVAL

Ambrosie said that despite there still being a chance that we could get a season in 2020, the Grey Cup festival wouldn’t be the same this year. The league wanted to give fans the full Grey Cup experience that they’ve come to know.

“The Grey Cup is more than a football game. If all we were doing was planning to play a game in Regina in November we may have been able to wait (on moving Regina to 2022),” Ambrosie said.

“But the Grey Cup as you all know is so much more than that. The festival and the atmosphere is such a part of what has made the CFL such a legendary event. What we know today, it is virtually impossible to host an event the way that CFL fans and Canadians have become accustomed to.

“Working with (Riders president and CEO) Craig Reynolds and the board of the Riders, it was very clear we weren’t going to have a traditional Grey Cup this year, regardless of where we might want to play it. So the idea was it was better to shift the RIders to 2022 where they can show us that remarkable Saskatchewan and prairie hospitality that we’re so looking forward to.

“We really believe that the win-and-host model was better for this year, given these very unique circumstances. We’re looking forward to coming back to Regina, back to Saskatchewan in 2022.”

The Argos and Alouettes gave fans a classic at the Touchdown Atlantic game last summer in Moncton, N.B. (Ron Ward/CFL.ca)

2. MISSING A CHANCE TO BE IN NOVA SCOTIA

Ambrosie was very excited about bringing the Touchdown Atlantic game to Halifax this summer. The event was sold out and would have given Haligonians a taste of what having the CFL in their city would be like.

The commissioner also lamented the chance to spend some time with football fans from Nova Scotia, a province that’s been riddled with tragedy recently.

“One of the great disappointments in all of the news is that we’re not going to be able to go to Halfiax this year, to Atlantic Canada and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the people that make up that great region of Canada,” he said.

“Of course, (it would have been) an even more significant visit to Halifax this year because of the tragedy that they underwent. We wanted to be there, we wanted to show them CFL support for that great part of this country but unfortunately with the COVID virus we had to make that decision.

“I think the most important thing is to tell Atlantic Canadians that they have been and they are a part of the CFL family. It is our intention to come back once this crisis passes and continue to embrace Atlantic Canada as a critical part of the CFL’s future.”

While the pandemic has been all-consuming in the news cycle and in Canadians day-to-day lives, Ambrosie said that he’d still love to one day see Halifax become the 10th team in the CFL. “Ideas come and go. Dreams don’t die,” he said, adding that the league will continue to work at securing a franchise there in the future.

3. FEDERAL FUNDING REQUEST 

After meeting with a House of Commons standing committee on finance earlier this month, Ambrosie said that those conversations are ongoing, with one having taken place on Friday afternoon last week. Federal government funding is one of a number of avenues that the league is exploring.

“Our strategy was always going to look at a number of different ways to see ourselves through this crisis,” he said.

“One of those conversations was with the federal government. We’ve been talking to the provincial governments because we have so many great friends among the provinces and of course there are things we’re working on on our own.

“I have the pleasure of working with a remarkable group of governors and a remarkable group of presidents. There is no quit in any of those people and we’re looking at all possible ways to make sure we survive this crisis and that we come back bigger, stronger and better than ever in 2021 and beyond.

“Right now it’s survive the crisis. That’s our strategy and then set ourselves up to thrive into the future.”

4. MESSAGE FOR SEASON TICKET HOLDERS

A season ticket holder in Calgary wrote in a question for Ambrosie about what options he might have this year. He and his wife are in their 60s and he has health issues. He said that if the season started and COVID-19 still posed a risk, he would not be attending any games this year. Asking what could become of his four season tickets, he wanted to know if he’d have the option of a full refund and have the option to keep his seats, or if his payment would go toward the 2021 season.

“What I’m asking all of our CFL season seat holder fans to do in the days ahead is reach out to your teams. They all have a strategy that they’re going to be holding with their season ticket holders,” Ambrosie said.

“What we want to do is make sure we’re sensitive to the situations you’re all going through. Everyone’s dealing with this pandemic differently and the circumstances are unique to everyone’s family and we want to be sensitive to that.

“I think the teams are prepared to have a conversation with you about how we manage this, what we do with your season seats, what we do with your season seat money. Do you want a refund, do you want to leave it in place, do you want to lave it in place for a future season? Are there other options? The teams are going to be ready to talk to all of you in the days ahead.

“All I can say is that the most important thing to us is the health and safety of our fans because it is what has driven this league for decades and decades. I know our board of governors and our presidents and our teams would want me to say that nothing is more important to us that the CFL fans get through this safely and in good health.”

The league has looked into the idea of hub cities hosting teams and games, while fans have kicked around the idea of an all-Canadian CFL season

5. HUB CITIES, AN ALL-CANADIAN CFL AND OTHER POSSIBILITIES 

Ambrosie also addressed some of the creative ideas that have been kicked around both internally at the league office and from fans that are holding out hope to see some type of football played this year.

Hub cities — where teams are brought to one stadium and multiple games are carried out without fans watching to play a season — have come up in numerous scenarios for North American sports teams. While the CFL has spoken much of it being a gate-driven league, it has looked at this as a possible option as well.

“It is one of the scenarios that we have been investigating,” Ambrosie said.

“We’ve got a committee looking at this very scenario. It is complicated and it is not an easy decision. It won’t be an easy decision to make. It’s complicated by all the moving parts and of course central to that are the health issues that relate to our players and our coaches and football operations, to our medical staff and all the people that would interact with our players.

“The notion is you would bring everybody essentially into isolation and try to keep them isolated as they play the games. There is a lot of complexity to that. For the time, I’m happy to report that is a scenario that we are investigating and the work on that will continue in the days ahead.

“At some point we’re going to have to make a final decision on what’s best. We’ll be guided primarily by health issues but there will of course be financial considerations that we’ll have to account for as well. We’ve got a group of remarkably committed presidents and governors who are helping go through this process and we’ll come out the other end with what we think is best for the CFL, best for our players, best for our fans and ultimately best for the future of our great game.”

With the Canadian/U.S. border remaining closed now through June 21, one fan asked Ambrosie about the possibility of the CFL taking all of its Canadian players and forming a reduced number of teams and having its own season. It’s worth noting that there are a handful of American players that live in Canada during the off-season and could in theory jump into this theoretical situation.

“What we are doing with everything that relates to our players is we’re talking to our Players’ Association,” he said.

“I had a chance to spend time (Tuesday) night with Bryan Ramsay from the P.A. talking about the various scenarios that we are considering. Anything that relates to how we might go forward depending on what happens with borders and health care edicts, all of those things are going to have be decided and worked on with our players, side by side with them and we’ll figure it out.

“It’s an interesting question and I couldn’t possibly answer it without sitting down with the Players’ Association as we go forward and we know more about what might happen with the border and other health care issues.”