Rick Zamperin: 2021 CFL season very much hangs in the balance

Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie delivers his annual state of the league address to reporters during the CFL Grey Cup week in Calgary, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

The mere thought of another year without the Canadian Football League due to the COVID-19 pandemic is something many fans north of the border will not be able to stomach.

It would be a bitter pill to swallow, yet it is one that we may be forced to gulp down.

In less than three months, May 23 to be exact, the CFL is planning to kick off its exhibition season by having the Calgary Stampeders host the B.C. Lions.

On June 10, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are slated to visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a rematch of the 107th Grey Cup in the league’s regular season opener.

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There is a chance that neither of those games, and many more, will be played in 2021.

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Without a war chest to tap into, the gate-driven CFL failed to secure government funding last year that would have enabled it to play games safely without fans in attendance.

Talk of a bubble format and a shortened season after Labour Day came and went just as quickly as the 2020 calendar evaporated into our memory bank.

Read more: CFL commissioner cautiously optimistic about 2021 season, Hamilton Grey Cup

Despite the numerous hurdles that still must be cleared — the health of players, coaches and fans (hopefully) and funding chief among them — Commissioner Randy Ambrosie remains optimistic that the league will return to the field this year.

“Personally, I’m very confident that we’re gonna get back on the field this year,” Ambrosie proclaimed in a recent interview on the Bill Kelly Show on Global News Radio, 900 CHML.

“The word ‘guarantee’ is difficult, but I feel very, very good today that we’re on track to play football this year.”

Ambrosie and the league’s nine teams are currently working with the CFL Players’ Association on a return to play protocol that will spell out how the 2021 season will play out amid the pandemic.

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The protocol, similar to what has been utilized by North America’s four major professional sports leagues, will include a seven-figure COVID-19 testing plan, a schedule that would become fluid in the event of an outbreak, and steps that would eventually allow fans to attend games.

But even Ambrosie admits that it will be “certainly very difficult” if the CFL can’t have fans attend games in person.

“Some of the answer lies in what happens with the vaccine rollout,” said Ambrosie.

“We all know that the sooner that we get vaccinated the more likely it is that the provincial health authorities will let fans into our stands.”

When that happens, however, remains a mystery despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s repeated promise that every Canadian who wants to receive a COVID-19 vaccine will get one by September.

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Read more: CFL will have to appease more levels of government to get 2021 protocols approved

It has been reported that the league lost between $60 million and $80 million by not playing any games in 2020, so you can’t blame the owners for not wanting a similar financial statement this year.

Pending approval of its return-to-play protocol, the CFL and its nine teams must determine if they can conduct a season, even a shortened one, without an external funding source and zero fans in their stadiums.

If the answer is no, any optimism about a 2021 season will fade away.

Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.

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