TORONTO — As the CFL and CFL Players' Association continue discussing amending their collective bargaining agreement to allow for a shortened season, government funding remains key to football being played in 2020.
And while Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault suggested Wednesday in the House of Commons there was no CFL-specific financial aid coming from Ottawa — before clarifying his statement on social media — a source reiterated the league's latest funding request lies with existing government programs and funding streams.
Earlier this month, the CFL submitted a revised financial request to Ottawa for roughly $42.5 million in aid. In April, it asked the federal government for up to $150 million in assistance in the event of a cancelled 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But another source said following the CFL's initial specific-funding request, it was directed by Ottawa to investigate other existing programs. In June, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie spoke before an Ontario committee on finance. He is also a co-chair of the Professional Sport Council established by Ontario sports minister Lisa MacLeod.
The sources were granted anonymity as neither the CFL nor government have indicated details of their financial assistance discussions.
The CFL's latest request will most likely require co-operation from the six provinces its franchises operate within. That's because Ottawa is dealing with the league's offer via the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), which is a federal agency but also a crown corporation, meaning the federal government can't mandate financial assistance for the CFL.
The BDC is essentially a bank with lending criteria and the CFL is unlikely to qualify given its current financial state — Ambrosie has stated the league lost collectively upwards of $20 million last season. To secure financial assistance — essentially a loan — the league would likely require the Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. governments to provide some kind of guarantee on any aid, something a source said Ottawa is trying to help facilitate.
But that could be an issue for Ontario, which has three league franchises — Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa. MacLeod has stated no CFL-specific funding is on the table and there are many other sectors within the province also requiring assistance.
But while Ontario is playing hardball in terms of financially supporting the CFL in 2020, the five other provinces haven't made similar statements. And if a scenario exists where Ontario is the lone dissenter, provincial/federal negotiations could help make the loan terms more palatable.
On Wednesday, MP Kevin Waugh (PC, Saskatoon-Grasswood) asked Guilbeault in the House of Commons if the $42.5 million in government assistance for the CFL was forthcoming. The Heritage minister didn't come out and say no directly, but stopped well short of guaranteeing the financial aid.
"We understand that for many Canadians, professional sport is a facet of their daily life and we certainly respect that," he said. "Through Sport Canada, our government funds amateur and youth programs across the country.
"Sport Canada does not provide funding for profit-independent leagues or those outside of Football Canada's mandate. We encourage organizations in need of assistance to talk to their financial institution and to see what options are available to them."
That prompted Waugh, a former sports journalist, to quip: "So I take it then, Mr. chair, the answer would be no to the Canadian Football League?"
Later, Guilbeault tweeted: "That would be wrong since we are in fact in discussion with the #CFL."
The CFL and CFLPA continue to negotiate amendments to their collective bargaining agreement that would allow for a shortened season. Prior to the start of talks last month, the league was reported to have set a deadline of Thursday to adopt health-and-safety protocols, secure acceptable federal funding and agree to terms on an extension of the CBA past its present 2021 expiry date. However, the deadline is now set for Friday.
Ambrosie has stated the earliest an abbreviated campaign would begin is September but that a cancelled season also remains possible.
On Tuesday, the CFL announced Winnipeg would be its hub city if a 2020 season were to be held, pending final approval from Manitoba public health and safety officials. While that step, along with an amended CBA, are necessary for an abbreviated season to begin, the harsh reality is government assistance is critical for the league to get on the field this year.
The new request covers operating costs and player salaries for a shortened campaign. It also includes a letter of support from the CFLPA.
If the CFL can put itself in position to stage a partial season, that would leave government as the lone remaining hurdle to football being played. Essentially, the league must first show the provinces it's able to return to play safely and give them a solid reason to extend any guarantees for funding.
The CFL's naming of Winnipeg as its hub and ongoing CBA talks — which are tentatively scheduled to conclude Thursday — are integral parts of securing funding. That's because the costs associated with both must be fixed as part of the application process.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press