Canadian Football League back in business – for now

CFL’s return masks uncertainty surrounding ticket sales, long-term financial sustainability

The BC Lions are scheduled to host the Edmonton Elks August 19 in the team’s first home game of the 2021 season | Chung Chow

It’s back, but for how long?

That’s one of the key questions facing the financially beleaguered Canadian Football League (CFL), which earlier this month announced that it will resume play on August 5 after the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of its 2020 season.

In the absence of lucrative TV broadcast deals, the CFL depends heavily on ticket sales and gates receipt for revenue. And while the league appears ready to welcome fans back to its stadiums, how many will be back at BC Place Stadium this year for BC Lions home games remains up in the air.

But the Lions could one of the first B.C. professional sports teams to have fans attending live games in more than a year on, when the club hosts the Edmonton Elks on August 19. 

Major League Soccer’s Whitecaps FC and the High-A West Vancouver Canadians baseball team are playing in the United States because of border-crossing complications.

Rick LeLacheur, president and CEO of the BC Lions, said the goal for the first home game is to have 5,000 fans in attendance – as the club outlined in its return-to-play safety plan filed with the provincial health officer. Beyond that, starting with the September 11 home game versus the Ottawa RedBlacks – nothing is certain.

Under the province’s four-step reopening plan, there is no set number or capacity percentage for how many fans will be allowed at organized gatherings under Step 3, which is scheduled to start July 1 at the earliest, or Step 4, which is scheduled to begin on September 7.

LeLacheur said the Lions have yet to heard back from the province about the team’s safety plan.

He said the club is playing it safe in the meantime, setting the 5,000 limit for the first game based on a Ticketmaster mapping program that allows the team to determine BC Place’s seating maximum based on social distancing and all current health restrictions.

The two closest seats to any aisle will consequently be left vacant, and no row will seat more than two groups of fans. LeLacheur confirmed that the stadium’s upper deck will remain closed.

The team has also started contacting season ticket holders on their intentions to attend games this season so it can determine what will be available for single-ticket buyers. 

LeLacheur said the Lions may resort to a lottery or seniority of season’s ticket holders to determine which fans get seats for the Lions’ limited-capacity first game.

He confirmed that the team will still lose money this season, but added that, contrary to speculation, CFL franchises that were struggling at the gate prior to COVID-19 were not opposed to restarting play in 2021 because the owners – including the estate of late Lions owner David Braley – understand the importance to the league’s survival of having a 2021 season.

According to numbers released by CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie during his unsuccessful 2020 bid to secure federal funding of up to $150 million, the CFL lost between $10 million and $20 million in 2019, a pre-pandemic season that had no attendance restrictions.

Sports journalist and TSN football insider Dave Naylor said the 2021 season does not change the fact that every CFL team will likely report a loss in 2021.

“While all the focus … has been on getting back on the field this year, the league’s challenging economics for the future hasn’t gone away, and neither has the conversation with the XFL about collaboration,” Naylor said, referring to news earlier this year that the two leagues are exploring a partnership. “The more intriguing question is, what will 2022 look like? Because by then, the dust will have settled on the pandemic, we hope, but we don’t know if the CFL can go back to normal.

“I don’t know if the CFL has nine owners that are committed to saying, ‘Yep, we are going to go back to status-quo.’ The last season before the pandemic, you had the league operate one of the teams [Montreal Alouettes]. You’ve had no movement on the market for Toronto. You have a team owned by an estate, and you need an owner there in B.C.… Anytime you have a business that the outlook is just about losing money, you have to wonder what’s the wherewithal of the people paying the bills to keep doing it.”

3DownNation Managing Editor Justin Dunk noted that proposed legislation in the Senate that would open the door to single-game sports betting in Canada would completely change the CFL’s financial equation. That change, in turn, may determine how much say the CFL has in a partnership with the XFL.

But he added that the CFL would need to play a 2021 season to see how the change would look like financially.

“It’s critical for the league to get back on the field and have momentum playing while discussions with the XFL are going on. The CFL will have an idea of what it looks like and extrapolate out the future potential for future seasons; that will impact the XFL negotiations more than anything else. Playing, in terms of the CFL, helps from the leverage standpoint.”

One thing that may be on the CFL’s side, however, is that it will likely be among the first games in town to allow live attendance, serving a pent-up consumer demand for spectator sports. 

 “We are hearing that a fair amount,” LeLacheur said. “People just want to get out and do some things, including sporting events. Hopefully we can help with that.”