Q&A: Randy Ambrosie on the CFL's return to play plans for 2021

Jesse Fuchs and Arash Madani discuss the CFL saying they will try to play football in 2021 with a 14 game schedule.

So we now know when the CFL season will start — sort of. The league is targeting a 14-game season beginning on Aug. 5. The 108th Grey Cup and its festivities will be held in the second weekend of December with the big game kicking off Dec. 12 in Hamilton.

But Wednesday’s news is contingent on return to play protocols being approved by all six provinces with CFL teams and that some fans can be in stands. We also know stadium capacity will vary by province depending on local health authorities.

That could mean the season starts with West provinces hosting East provinces for a while. It could mean East teams playing home games in West stadiums to garner more revenue.

No matter the details to be worked out, it’s good news the plan is still to play and that there is a realistic date as to when that might happen. Players at the very least have a contingent date to work around in terms of tapering their training and making life and family arrangements. And fans can start to think wishfully again.

To that end, I caught up with commissioner Randy Ambrosie on the CFL’s “The Waggle” podcast to garner his perspective on a few things fans are pondering as they try to wrap their head around an abbreviated season.

Here is a chunk of that conversation, edited for length.

Sportsnet.ca: How did the league come to making a decision to implement this schedule model right now?

Randy Ambrosie: Several weeks ago, as we’ve all come to appreciate, we started to see the beginnings of this third wave hitting us. And it hit especially hard in a number of provinces. As we were watching that unfold, we happened to be in conversations with public health officials in the provinces. We got to a point where it was becoming more and more obvious that a June 10 start to the season was simply not in the cards.

Concurrent to all of that, as a result of the conversations we were having with provincial health officials, they were sharing with us some of their thoughts on the trajectory of the COVID crisis itself, and some data and information on the rate of vaccinations. And one particularly important theme was that they expected that we would all know a lot more about the state of affairs for larger public gatherings and the final approval of our players health and safety plan in early June.

So, Donnovan, we set about with a collective effort with all the teams and the league office football-operations group to do a work-back plan on exactly how many days did we need, factoring in what we currently know about periods of isolation, what we had been told about quarantine periods in country and community, length of training camp times, and with all of that factored in, it became somewhat clear. It really made most of July quite nebulous.

And so, what we did is, is we started to coalesce around the idea of an August start. Thursday, Aug. 5, was a day we circled on the calendar.

And then the final piece of the equation is, look, we know that our fans want us to play as much football as we can. And we've had this conversation with the P.A., that the players’ association want their players to play as much football as we can. So, in the end, Donnovan, all of those factors combined led us to the conclusion that a Thursday, Aug. 5, start to a season was the most reasonable and practical date to choose. And I was certainly happy to be able to announce that to our fans.

So, given all of that information, is there a drop-dead date in terms of communication towards the players who obviously have to quarantine and make life arrangements and the fans who have been waiting with bated breath for a while in terms of when you'll know if you’ll be able to hit that date?

We're really looking at the middle of June, Donnovan — the exact date we haven’t landed on today. But we are focused on having a decision matrix completely populated with everything that we can possibly want to know ... from public health authorities by the middle of June, and then we’ll be in a position in collaboration and conversations with the players and all of our major stakeholders to make a decision.

But Donnovan, it's also important to note that one of the key messages that we're sharing today is the resolve that this league has to have to play football this year. So, we are really excited about our Aug. 5 plan, and we’re going to work night and day to make it happen.

We obviously need some cooperation from the COVID crisis. We need help from public health officials who have been really thoughtful with us in our interactions. But we are building backup plans, and backup plans to back up our backup plans, and even a few plans to back up [those] backup plans.

Because one of the things that our nine teams have communicated is that they want to have a CFL season. They want to have a Grey Cup champion crowned in 2021. And Donnovan, I have absolute confidence that we will make that happen.

It’s funny you say that because there has been discussion that among the owners and the board of governors, they haven’t been as unanimous about being committed to play, and (some expect) to feel some pain if they do play.

My thoughts are that that’s just not true. It’s one of the reasons why it’s good not to listen to rumours.

Every team has come at this in their own way. Every team has had a unique perspective. Our governors are super smart people who have had success in every element of their lives. They come at the problem differently. Their challenges are unique to their own market. Certain teams have challenges that they share more in common with others.

But what I’ve come to appreciate is that you listen to them. Do they all see it exactly the same way? No. But, frankly, Donnovan, I would think it would be unfair to expect that all nine teams would see this crisis and a way of managing this crisis in an identical way.

But I do believe that we have a very unified league today and a deep commitment to finding our way back on the field.

Obviously part of that decision will be fans in stands and when can that happen. Is there a capacity threshold that you have for the league or will it be case by case in terms of what is that number that makes sense to go ahead with the season?

Thanks for that question, Donnovan, because, as you know, you’ve traveled to all nine CFL cities. You know that the nine facilities that we play in are all very different, and they range in capacity quite significantly. In some cases, some of our stadiums are literally twice the size, if not more than twice the size of others.

So, what we’re going to do is we’re going to deal with each of our nine CFL cities and our nine CFL teams through the lens of their own unique facility, through the lens of what’s happening with their partnership with their local health authorities. And that’s why I refer to the creation of a matrix because we really need to come at this on a team-by-team basis in order to come up with a road map to make our final decision.

The decision to play in December, and not just move the start of the season but move the end of it — how did you come to that specific decision?

Well, that was discussed with the players as an example of something that would help to allow us to play more games. And I just emphasize that point, Donnovan, because we are trying to talk to our players about all of the key issues that we face. It certainly does allow us to play more games, which is so important to everybody. And in the end, we aren’t entirely sure that it’s going to be exactly the same kind of Grey Cup that our fans have been used to in the past.

I think everybody has acknowledged that the COVID crisis has changed a lot of things. But, Donnovan, it gives us the maximum window from which to have a season, gives us the maximum window to have as many games as we possibly can play. And quite honestly, I just think when it comes time to play our Grey Cup game, Canadians are going to show up both in terms of their enthusiasm to watch the game on TV and their enthusiasm to come to the game, because it's going to be a national celebration — not just of our game of football, but of, in a way too, Donnovan, how we've all pulled together and fought our way through this COVID crisis.

It will be an opportunity for a national celebration coming out from underneath this COVID crisis and recognizing that a lot of Canadians have suffered greatly, and families have suffered tragedy. And it’s been hard on all of us. I think it would be a perfect time to come together as a country and acknowledge the hard work that everybody has put into managing our way through this crisis.

Canadians hopefully will be coming to the games and hopefully will be vaccinated at that point. For some, there’s vaccine hesitancy. For some, vaccines are political. Is there a chance you only will allow vaccinated fans or have some sort of vaccine passport as a way to get fans in the stands and keep them safe?

Well, Donnovan, I suspect that issue is going to be discussed in every nook and cranny of our country. I think it’s an issue that is largely unresolved at this time. What I can say is that we the CFL and certainly myself are going to be encouraging all of our fans to get vaccinated when they’re offered a vaccine.

I’m proud to say that my wife and I got our email, and we were able to book an appointment. We both have now received our first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. I’m so excited about that. We’re going to encourage Canadians to get vaccinated. We’re also going to encourage Canadians to follow the public health guidelines that their provincial health authorities are sharing because we think we can win this battle together.

You’ve had a lot of time to evaluate how other leagues are tackling this crisis. Are there specific strategies that you’ve picked up that you’ve wanted to implement within the CFL?

RA: One of the things you have to be is creative, and you have to be flexible and we’re seeing that in basketball. The Raptors, for example, are relocated to Florida.

But, Donnovan, underlying your question is a reality that we face, and that is that our business is constructed somewhat differently than most other leagues. And I know, look, we have faced the criticism that we were a major pro sports league that couldn’t get on the field in 2020. The truth is our revenue model sees us relying on more than 50 per cent of our revenue coming from fans in the stands. And that makes us quite different and unique among the major sports.

But it is exactly why we’ve seen events like Formula One races being cancelled and why Wimbledon was cancelled, why the Canadian Open was cancelled.... The inability to have fans in the stands impairs those events’ ability to succeed.

It speaks to building a long-term vision and a long-term strategy for the kind of business success that we need (in order) to match the kind of on-field success that we have become known for over these many decades. I think that our business model has never been as strong as our game model — has never been as strong as the great players who have played our game. And one of the opportunities that’s in front of us today is to find a business model, to work hard at building a business model, that can go punch for punch with the quality of our players and the quality of our game.

You’ve said before in terms of playing a 2021 season, you’ll have a made-in-Canada solution — that you wouldn't need help from outsiders or specifically the XFL. In terms of your business model long term, beyond this year, can you say the same is true?

Well, the answer is that we have to investigate all possibilities. We’ve done a lot of work on it. And quite honestly, I’m really, really proud of our teams who have really leaned in. We’ve cut a lot of costs. We’ve rebuilt our business model. This league is sitting on a much stronger foundation today than it did in the past.

But what I think we have to commit to is exploring every possibility to create a business model that, as I said, can go punch for punch with the quality of our game and the quality of our players. And that work is under way.

Exactly how it plays out, we’re not entirely sure. But I think the conversations we’re having today are really important. And the conversations we’re having with quite remarkable people are really important. Donnovan, we’re going to continue that work, all of it in the spirit of making sure for me that my nine CFL teams and maybe eventually a CFL team in Atlantic Canada, in Halifax, are playing on a platform that is built for long-term success. That’s something that to me is an absolute imperative.

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