BC Lions struggle to gain yards in lopsided match against pandemic

About everything that could go wrong for a business has gone wrong lately for the BC Lions.

Start with its heavy investment in 2019 in quarterback Mike Reilly, made the highest-paid player in the Canadian Football League. It did not yield a playoff spot, much less a championship. Out went the rookie coach, in came a respected one, and all thought all was back on track.

Its aim was to get to the Grey Cup this year. That would be this Sunday in Regina, the end of a week typically of heavy drinking and heavier hangovers, but along the way to the blend of football and beverages the coronavirus ran the CFL off the field.

The league’s business model is predicated on fans in the seats, not on their couches, and the fans in the seats mainly come for players who cross the border to play, made more difficult by the pandemic. Nix to the seated fans and to the notion of a shortened season or a hub city.

Nix, also, weirdly, to federal support for one of the world’s oldest leagues, which in this age of profligate spending to save the most obscure element of our culture and economy was a giant cold salmon across the cheek. The CFL’s ask – parsed over the months from a $150 million grant to a $30 million loan – is a rounding error on the securities the government is buying each day or the income support it is supplying each hour. No matter.

Then, well, the team owner died last month. Not any team owner, but David Braley, credited with no exaggeration by CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie as integral in keeping the league alive. At one comical stage in the CFL’s chequered governance, Braley had divested his hometown Hamilton Ti-Cats and taken on not just one franchise in Toronto but a second one in the Lions.

Braley was the spine of a league that will not let go, with a fan base that recalls Russ Jackson and Angelo Mosca and the Fog Bowl, and it is hard to find people today willing to burn through such money in the service of civic and national identity. The CFL is the newspaper of the TikTok age, worth preserving but damned hard to do so with such distractions.

I knew Braley in a previous role in Hamilton, and would see him Saturday mornings at the Your Place Family Restaurant ($3 breakfast) before his regular brushcut (never checked, but likely $7 plus tip). This is how rich people get and stay that way, and I mean that with only respect. The Orlick auto parts titan was saving to eventually spend to sustain the passion for local love of sports in its collision with the obscene behemoth of the National Football League and its absorption of the Canadian fan.

He repelled Vancouver entreaties to sell as lowballing and his estate now is charged with divesting the team debt-free. How that stays so is an open question, given the circumstance.

The circumstance was the centre of attention Tuesday evening when the Lions convened Ambrosie, team president Rick LeLacheur and newish but neutralized coach Rick Campbell and his assistants for a townhall with (disclosure: I am among them) season seat holders.

Oh, forgot to mention: the vaunted Reilly has filed a grievance against the team for what he says was the guaranteed portion of his contract – $250,000, or about one-third of the salary that neither he nor other CFL players received for their forsaken season. The general manager resigned shortly before this went public, and it didn’t take long for some to connect the dots.

LeLacheur, ever discreet about personnel even with these many quandaries in his lap, told the townhall he expects his QB in a Lions uniform next season. He didn’t say how that rift will heal or, for that matter, when next season will be.

Ambrosie is doing his best, but his best feels like it will need better help. For one, he doesn’t have a return-to-play plan, even though other leagues with more imminent deadlines have crafted them. The National Basketball Association: December 22. The National Hockey League: January 1.

The CFL? Ambrosie is suggesting he’ll get the six provincial public health officers to reach some sort of agreed protocol to guide resumption. Oddly, the league is releasing a presumed schedule this week before the public health alignment. Somehow doesn’t sound like the optimal sequence.

What was Tuesday evening most heart-wrenching professionally – if humanizing personally – was to hear so many hypermasculine coaches on Zoom, their passions in the deep freeze, finding solace in coaching their kids and watching them grow in a week they would optimally be scheming to beat some eastern foe instead of enduring a global one.

The team has lost a lot of institutional memory and operates with a skeletal staff, and Ambrosie insists a CFL business model with “significant cost savings” will emerge. B.C. Pavilion Corp. (PavCo), the provincial Crown corporation atop the unoccupied and vexed BC Place, would do well to cut the Lions, the soccer Whitecaps, and anyone else who wants to bring a vaccinated crowd or a socially distanced throng to the stadium in 2021 a giant piece on concessions and parking.

We would do well meantime to save a few dollars a week for the first few games back to welcome them with open arms and the loudest possible voices. And to do it again and again.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.