TORONTO — The COVID-19 pandemic is again wreaking havoc with the CFL's plans, but commissioner Randy Ambrosie remains bullish the league will return to the field this year.
The CFL announced Wednesday it's delaying the start of the '21 season to Aug. 5 and reducing the number of games played to 14 per team. The league had originally planned to start June 10 with a full 18-game schedule after cancelling the '20 season due to the global pandemic.
"I think the best part is being able to articulate a commitment to playing in 2021," Ambrosie said. "Aug. 5 is a date we have confidence in but it's not absolute.
"It obviously relies heavily upon this pandemic starting to wane. But to be able to talk about our league getting back to the field and playing in 2021 really feels good."
CFL training camps were slated to open in mid May with the first exhibition contest slated for May 23. But with Canada dealing with a third wave, the league's board of governors decided to push back the start of the season and cut the regular-season schedule, resulting in the Grey Cup game being scheduled for Dec. 12 in Hamilton instead of Nov. 21.
The move wasn't a surprise given Ontario (4,212 new cases Wednesday) and Quebec (1,217 new cases) are both battling a tough third wave. Four of the CFL's nine franchises — Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Ottawa Redblacks and Montreal Alouettes — operate in those provinces.
"Right now we're anticipating a 'normal' season with our teams travelling," Ambrosie said. "We could have our teams in the East potentially travelling early in the schedule to take advantage of what we think could be a better environment for fans in the stands in the West . . . then returning back to those jurisdictions as their restrictions begin to ease."
Brian Ramsay, the executive director of the CFL Players' Association, praised the CFL and its governors for reaching the decision.
"I think this is progress, this is a step in the right direction," he said. "I think it's a good thing that the league and board of governors have provided this direction but as we've discussed with our members, there are still many variables ahead of us.
"The analogy we've provided is the cement has been poured but it's far from dried."
The CFL is continuing to advise its members who have off-season jobs to not leave.
"There needs to be more direction and more certainty and that's just not available yet," Ramsay said.
It's the second straight year the novel coronavirus outbreak has affected the CFL schedule. The league cancelled plans for an abbreviated '20 season due to the pandemic after failing to secure an interest-free, $30-million loan from the federal government.
A source has said not playing football cost the CFL between $60 and $80 million. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity as the league has never divulged its financial losses.
Ambrosie confirmed the CFL and federal government resumed discussions shortly after the cancellation of the 2020 campaign and those talks have revolved around the various programs offered by Ottawa and not another loan request.
"The bottom line is we'll continue to talk to government," he said. "We believe and I think many of the people we've spoken to in government understand how important our league is to Canada.
"We're just going to keep talking to them with the optimism that something positive will come from it."
Delaying the '21 season allows for more Canadians to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations and thus increases chances of fans being allowed in the stands once football resumes. CFL teams are heavily reliant upon ticket sales to generate operating revenue.
Ambrosie said there has been no discussion regarding the CFL starting the season without fans and being allowed to gradually allow spectators into games. He was also mum on if the '21 campaign would be cancelled outright if stadiums had to remain empty and whether the CFL could survive a second straight year without games.
"We're going to play football in 2021," Ambrosie said. "We have backup plans and backup plans to our backup plans, we're committed to finding a way to play.
"There's no perfect answer right now because like almost everybody else, we're at the mercy of what's happening with this pandemic. What I am going to continue to reiterate and am happy to say is we are going to play football."
At least one premier interpreted Wednesday's announcement as good news.
Responding to a Twitter post about the CFL's scheduling moves, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wrote: "Amazing news! Hopefully we will be able to be in the stands this summer. Can’t wait to get back to McMahon (Stadium in Calgary)! We’re so close to the end of this and news like this should remind us all to stay safe and get vaccinated. A great Alberta summer is coming!"
This decision also gives the CFL more time for its return-to-play protocols to be approved by Canadian health officials. Amended protocols are before the six provinces where franchises are based — B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec — and must be approved.
Then the return-to-play plan would go to the Public Health Agency of Canada — which was examining the league's health-and-safety protocols last year when it cancelled the '20 season. The CFL also might have to secure a national interest exemption from the federal government for games to be played before the completion of Canada's COVID-19 vaccination program.
"We've received tremendous feedback from the provinces," Ambrosie said. "We have a little bit more time and we'll continue to refine our return-to-play protocols to make sure they're perfectly synchronized with the situation that we'll find ourselves in as we get closer to launch our season."
The CFL and CFLPA must also agree on an amended collective bargaining agreement, with Ramsay saying talks are ongoing. While the two sides have had an often acrimonious relationship in the past, Ramsay suggested it's improving.
"It has been better but it still needs to be stronger . . . we're not where we need to be yet," Ramsay said. "Successful organizations and entities, both inside and outside of sport, rely on collaboration as they evolve.
"When you look at this crisis, the CFL is no different than many organizations and in order to thrive we believe collaboration between all stakeholders is a critical part of that evolution."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.