CFL cancels 2020 season during pandemic, ends 100-plus year run for Grey Cup

TORONTO — CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie shoulders the blame for the Grey Cup not being handed out for the first time in more than 100 years.

The CFL cancelled its season Monday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the Grey Cup won't be presented for the first time since 1919.

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The decision comes after the CFL was unable to secure financial assistance from the federal government. The league sent Ottawa an amended request Aug. 3 for a $30-million, interest-free loan, but the sides couldn't come to terms on a deal.

It was the CFL's last-ditch effort to stage an abbreviated season in the hub city of Winnipeg. It came after the league asked for $44 million in July.

"I do feel I am responsible for the fact that we are not on the field this year," Ambrosie said in a telephone interview. "But I resolve to learn from what we've experienced and I'm looking forward to a bright future.

"I think we're all watching an example on the world stage today of a leader that takes no responsibility for anything . . . and no matter what happens, I won't be that guy."

The CFL had maintained it required government funding to stage a shortened season. In late April, Ambrosie told The Canadian Press the league had presented a three-tiered request for financial assistance that began with $30 million initially, more in the event of a shortened season and up to $150 million in the event of a cancelled campaign.

"I regret that . . . I do wish we hadn't thrown that number ($150 million) out," Ambrosie said. "We never asked for $150 million, at least I don't feel we did.

"What we did was aggregate what we thought was the worst-case scenario . . . and we said, 'In the end our problem could be as big as $150 million,' but that became the number."

Ambrosie had stated the CFL collectively lost around $20 million last season. With no football in 2020, a source familiar with the situation said the league will lose between $60 and $80 million this year.

Ambrosie said he was at a loss to explain why the CFL and government couldn't come to a suitable financial arrangement. But two league sources said the $30-million request fell through when the assistance couldn't be provided to the league under the terms it sought.

The sources were granted anonymity because the league and government haven't discussed certain financial figures publicly.

Last month, the CFL ruled out a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada because it felt the interest rate was too high.

"I think there were at least a couple of times when for really good reasons we felt like we were on track to be able to do something with the government," Ambrosie said. "And it didn't happen.

"I feel a sense of disappointment but not anger, just sorrow that something that I thought would come together didn't happen."

Another requirement for an abbreviated season was the CFL and CFL Players' Association agreeing on an amended collective bargaining agreement. The CFL said it was close to a deal when it called off the season Monday.

That's what made the CFL's decision Monday so surprising to CFLPA president Solomon Elimimian.

"It's definitely disappointing and yes, we were surprised," said Elimimian, a Saskatchewan Roughriders linebacker. "We felt like we were making tremendous progress . . . things were moving in a way that led me to optimism, led all of us to optimism.

"From that aspect, when the news came it was definitely tough."

Six of the CFL's nine teams are privately owned by either wealthy individuals or organizations. However, none stepped up to provide the funds necessary for a shortened season.

"They have complicated businesses outside of their CFL ownership and all of those things have been affected as well (by the pandemic)," Ambrosie said. "I don't think it would be fair to harshly judge them when frankly they give and they give and they give."

Ambrosie said while he's bitterly disappointed, the CFL and its teams have the luxury of time to plan for the 2021 season. However, there's plenty of uncertainty about next season, most notably if CFL fans will be allowed back in the stands.

The CFL is a gate-driven league and its teams depend heavily upon ticket sales to generate revenue. Ambrosie admits he's concerned about what impact the novel coronavirus will have on his league next season.

"Sure I am concerned but I think this is the challenge we're all facing together," he said. "None of us really know what 2021 is going to look like.

"The optimist in me believes the scientific world is going to create a vaccine and we're going to get back to a more normal world. We'll (prepare) for the best, plan for the worst but I believe that good things will happen. You have to wake up with optimism and frankly that's how I'm going to face the challenge."

Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault said the government tried to work with the CFL.

"Our government helped the CFL navigate through the existing COVID-19 emergency response programs that are helping tens of thousands of businesses across Canada with revenue and liquidity challenges during this time," Guilbeault said in a statement.

"Although the league was able to benefit from some of these programs, its board members ultimately made the decision not to pursue the upcoming season."

Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos (London North Centre) supported no federal money going to the CFL.

"The federal government made the right decision here," he tweeted. "While the CFL is a very important part of sport heritage, it is not entitled to special treatment.

"Some fans will be disappointed but the league's ask simply wasn't fair or reasonable."

With the cancellation, the CFL becomes one of the few major North American pro sports leagues to wipe out play in 2020. Major League Baseball is running a shortened season, while the NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer have resumed play. The NFL says it's planning to start its season on time next month.

Ambrosie has received heavy criticism for his leadership in navigating the CFL through the pandemic. Players routinely took to social media to voice their displeasure with Ambrosie throughout the process and politicians from all major parties criticized the league for not having its players involved in its initial financial assistance request.

However, Ambrosie wants to remain in his post.

"It's been hard and it wouldn't be honest to say that every day since this all started has been a bowl of cherries because it hasn't," Ambrosie said. "I'm committed to this league, I'm committed to its future.

"I'm going to lean in as hard or harder than anything I've done in my career because I think we've got something special and I'd like to be part of it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2020

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