Federal politicians gave CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie a rough ride Thursday during his testimony before a House of Commons standing committee on finance.
Ambrosie spoke via video during a panel on arts, culture, sports and charitable organizations. His appearance came after news broke last week the CFL had requested up to $150 million in financial assistance from the federal government due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his testimony, Ambrosie said the league’s future is “very much in jeopardy,” adding CFL teams collectively lost about $20 million last year. He admitted for the first time the most likely scenario for the CFL is a cancelled 2020 season.
“Ours is a big brand but not a wealthy business,” Ambrosie said. ”Unlike large US-based leagues, our biggest source of revenue is not TV — it’s ticket sales.
“Governments coping with COVID 19 — for reasons of public health that we totally support — have made it impossible for us to do what we do. Our best-case scenario for this year is a drastically truncated season. And our most likely scenario is no season at all.”
Following Ambrosie’s presentation, MPs Kevin Waugh (Conservative, Saskatoon), Peter Julian (NDP, New Westminster-Burnaby) and Peter Fragiskatos (Liberal, London North Centre) all took turns taking the CFL commissioner to task. At times, Ambrosie appeared on the defensive.
“Some of your comments have a lot of holes in them,” said Waugh, a former sports journalist who asked if the CFL was looking for a bailout or loan.
“What we’re looking for is a partnership with government,” Ambrosie said. “Our fundamental position is that we are looking for financial support that we want to pay back to Canadians.
“If it’s in the form of a loan, perhaps we pay some of that loan back through programs … we’re really looking for a business relationship that would be good for Canadians in the long run.”
Waugh also pointed out the CFL’s three community-based franchises — Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers — all turned seven-figure profits in 2018. He added the league’s six remaining franchises are privately owned by people or corporations with deep pockets.
“The fact is that in the face of essentially a zero revenue model, all of our teams, including our community teams, are going to suffer significant losses that are going to be hard to recover from,” Ambrosie said. “The real issue is this crisis is essentially going to quadruple or more the financial losses that our teams will take in a season that could potentially be lost altogether.”
Julian wondered why Ambrosie’s presentation didn’t include any presence by the CFL Players’ Association.
“Those are the world-class athletes, as you’ve said, that actually are the heart and soul of the CFL,” Julian said. “What would they be saying if they were before the committee?
“And how much of the financial support you’re requesting would be going directly to the players of the CFL?”
The CFL and its players have resumed meeting about potential contingency plans for the ‘20 season after talks broke off for roughly two weeks. Ambrosie said Thursday the two sides are scheduled to gather Friday.
“As for how much will go to players, we have to work that out,” Ambrosie said. “We know, for example, our players and alumni could be a potential solution in the healing of Canada.
“Our approach was that we simply wanted government to know we need help. The details of how it all comes together are yet to be decided and that has to be with our players and that has to be done with government as partners.”
Julian remained undeterred.
“Thank-you for your answer,” he said. “But the reality is, as we know, it’s the CFL players that are the heart of CFL football and I think it’s important we hear from them as quickly as possible.”
Julian also questioned Ambrosie about some of the corporations and individuals involved in CFL ownership. He added at a time when many Canadians are struggling, why isn’t the league’s wealthier ownership, “stepping up to provide support for the CFL?”
“All of those groups and people you mentioned have been stepping up,” Ambrosie said. “The question really for us is how many losses can these owners take when they’ve been losing approximately in total $20 million a year?
“And there is now, of course, a dramatically accelerated level of losses that will come with a truncated season or a lost season altogether.”
Fragiskatos asked Ambrosie why the CFL had approached government and not banks for financial assistance.
“I think the answer lies in the fact that as a league last year we lost approximately $20 million,” Ambrosie said. “First of all some of our teams are community teams that, by virtue of their structure, can’t take on traditional commercial credit.”
Fragiskatos countered, “If banks won’t support the CFL, why should the federal government support the CFL?”
“It’s not a question of whether banks would support us,” Ambrosie said. “The issue is you’re now taking a $20-million loss and you’re almost certainly making that loss bigger in future years.
“Our challenge is … we’re going to see our losses grow as a result of not being able to play games. And if you add traditional consumer debt to our financial statements, all you’re going to do is bloat our losses, not make our losses reduced.”
The CFL has already cancelled the start of training camps — which were scheduled to open this month — and pushed back the opening of its regular season to early July, at the earliest. Ambrosie acknowledged more cancellations of games could be looming.
“We are currently operating on the money (of) our fans, and to a lesser extent our broadcasters and sponsors, pay us in advance for games,” Ambrosie said. “The day is fast approaching when we will have to cancel several games and perhaps the season.
“And then our fans and partners will have every right to demand their money back. At that moment, our financial crisis will become very real and very big.
“A ban on large gatherings means no revenue, no business, for us. We want to ensure it also does not mean no CFL, for the future.”
Ambrosie made it clear these are desperate times for the CFL.
“I don’t mind telling you, this is humbling but the fact is we need your support,” he said. “So we can be there for all the community groups that depend on us.
“Whenever it comes, we want our next Grey Cup — Canada’s 108th — to be the place where we can all celebrate that we did get through this. And that Canada is back.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press