CFL governors hold the fate of the 2021 season in their hands

Logo of the Canadian Football League

The 2021 Canadian Football League season, assuming it goes ahead as planned, will feature pandemic workarounds, deficit mitigation and hope for better days ahead.

When league governors meet on a Monday conference call, they will discuss and are likely to approve a 16-week, 63-game schedule that starts Aug. 5 and offers 14 regular-season games and two bye weeks for each of the nine teams. Normally, a two-week playoff schedule of east and west semifinals and finals would then precede the Dec. 12 Grey Cup game in Hamilton, and that could still happen.

However, sources have confirmed that the league has the discretion to institute an eight-team playoff scenario, possibly in concert with a single, nine-team division for the regular-season standings. That would obviously be a major change from the long-standing east/west alignment.

An eight-team scenario would expand post-season play from four games to six, followed by the Grey Cup.

That would be good news for CFL Players Association members, many of whom haven’t received any CFL money since the fall of 2019. Playoff cheques are not pro-rated — the CBA calls for $3,400 per player in a semifinal and $3,600 per player in a final — while regular-season salaries will reflect the drop in games played from 18 to 14.

There is plenty of upside for the league as well. Two teams that would have been on the outside looking in at the playoffs would instead be part of the action. While teams that would have finished first in the east and west divisions would not enjoy a first-round bye, they would gain the potential for an extra home game and the revenue it creates, which has never been more important. CFL teams combined to lose a reported $60 million or more after the 2020 season was cancelled.

Though Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has given people reason to believe that Calgary’s McMahon Stadium and Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium will be operating at full capacity in August — if vaccination targets are met and case counts do not rise — public health restrictions designed to eradicate the lingering COVID-19 pandemic in five other provinces will reduce teams’ ability to fill seats at their own home games. That will result in lost revenue and more red ink along the bottom line, as in-stadium spend represents the lion’s share for most teams.

With that and many other issues in play, the eight-team playoff scenario has been discussed at some length and certainly has its proponents among governors. However, the details haven’t been finalized and it isn’t clear whether the league is committed to the single-division regular season and/or the eight-team playoff format for the 2021 season.

The league and players have committed to significant pandemic workarounds, however, including the institution of five-player “taxi squads” that can be accessed by any team in the league.

If, for instance, Ottawa has a rash of injuries preceding a game and does not have immediate access to enough wide receivers who have cleared quarantine, the Redblacks could tap into the taxi squad of any other team for players. The taxi squads are separate from the teams’ 13-player practice rosters and will exist only as long as quarantine regulations are being enforced.

The players association announced last week that its player representatives had ratified the memorandum of agreement reached by the league and the PA’s bargaining committee to allow the playing of a 14-game season, and the formulation of the taxi squads is just one of several amendments made by both sides.

Other amendments include changes to the active roster, which will include one global player rather than the two provided for in the original CBA signed in 2019.

The PA also announced last week that if CFL governors approve the memorandum of agreement, a seven-day home quarantine would start for all players June 25 and training camps could open as early as July 10.

As had been suggested publicly by CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie and other league leaders in recent weeks, there won’t be any pre-season games. And in order to stage 63 games in 16 weeks and allow each team to have two bye weeks, there will be some tight turnarounds for some teams, which isn’t ideal.

But there was a healthy spirit of co-operation during negotiations between the league and the players association and the memorandum of agreement it produced is purposeful, tailor-made to work around pandemic restrictions, mitigate costs and maximize revenues at a pivotal time in the league’s history.

After sizing up the financial risks of playing a compressed six-game 2020 season in a Winnipeg bubble — without fans or financial support from the federal government — governors voted against it last August.

Today, most, if not all, of the nine teams are committed to making the best of the situation, which is improving but will still likely result in major financial losses for the league.

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