Should Ottawa bail out the CFL?

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a garden variety of multi-billion dollar programs designed to provide financial relief to Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic.  This includes the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, Canada Emergency Response Benefit and Canada Emergency Business Account.

Will this generosity be extended to the Canadian Football League?

Last week, the CFL requested up to $150 million in financial assistance from Ottawa during the economic lockdown.  Roughly $30 million would be allocated to the league’s current challenges in dealing with COVID-19, and another $120 million (or thereabouts) would be factored in if this year’s regular season was abandoned.

“One of the things, I think, that the CFL and all of us who love the league pride ourselves on is we’re striving to be very optimistic,” league commissioner Randy Ambrosie told the Canadian Press on April 28.  “But to be realistic, the kinds of losses could have an effect on the future of this league.”

If you read between the lines, Ambrosie’s message is clear.  Without a significant cash infusion from Ottawa, the fate of Canadian football could be a fait accompli.

The Liberals haven’t rushed to the CFL’s aid on galloping white horses, however.

First, Ottawa realizes this sort of financial commitment would be much harder to justify than a federal wage subsidy or rent reduction.  Public money used to help individuals and families in need can be spun by political strategists as a net societal benefit.  Conversely, the proposed CFL bailout could be viewed as specialized, narrow and/or wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars.  The direction of the needle of public opinion is easy to determine.

Second, the CFL’s financial situation has been a real concern.  TSN’s Dave Naylor wrote in a May 17, 2019 online column, “most revenue streams are flat and six of nine teams last season operated in the red.”  CFL teams like the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Edmonton Eskimos have achieved profitable seasons, whereas the Toronto Argonauts, Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats have all witnessed lean years.  If good money (from the public coffers) is used to prop up clubs in mostly poor financial health, these funds could quickly turn bad – and more money would be required than originally earmarked.  It’s unlikely the general public would go for this.

Third, Canadians love sports, but don’t follow the CFL as closely as before.  An August 31, 2018 study by the Angus Reid Institute showed that 39 percent of respondents preferred the CFL, an additional 39 percent preferred the National Football League, and 22 percent enjoyed them equally.  That statistic didn’t tell the whole story.  If you dig deeper, the NFL was preferred by Canadians aged 18-34 (53-31%) and 35-54 (41-35%), while respondents 55 years and older preferred the CFL (47-27%).  This is a sports league that evidently caters to an older demographic.  The Trudeau Liberals, who strongly prefer to court younger people to build long-term policies and strategies, surely know this and realize a CFL bailout wouldn’t work to their political advantage.

That being said, let’s be realistic.  Saying “no” to the CFL would be detrimental to the minority Liberal government.

The CFL has existed since 1958, but its roots go back to the early 1900s and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union.  The league has its own set of rules, including three downs, a wider playing field and the single point known as the rouge.  The Grey Cup was first awarded to the University of Toronto in 1909 after beating the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club 26-6, and has been played 107 times.

In other words, the CFL is one of North America’s oldest sports leagues – and is uniquely Canadian.  Letting it die a painful death wouldn’t be a viable option, no matter your feelings about everything from nationalism to capitalism.

The Wall Street Journal’s Ottawa correspondent Paul Vieira proposed an interesting strategy in an April 29 tweet, “Learned associate of mine makes a good point: Couldn’t the Canadian Govt just buy all the CFL franchises for C$150M?”

Yes, Ottawa could do that.  Then again, do Canadians really want to become the “owners” of these nine teams?  What would the monetary value be for these teams if a public entity like the feds owned them?  Could they all be sold after the coronavirus pandemic either settles down or comes to an end?

Long story short, there’s too much risk involved in this proposal.

Financial assistance may turn out to be the only solution to keep the CFL afloat.  It shouldn’t be awarded in the form of a gift.  The loan must be repayable to justify the cost for Canadians.  It could be set at a low interest rate with a long term, but the taxpayers’ money must come back in some way, shape or form.

As someone who enjoys the NFL and CFL (I was highly critical of the latter for years, but have recently returned to the fold), I could live with this.  Financial bailouts aren’t part of my personal or political DNA, but we’re living in unusual times.  Canadian football’s long history and rich legacy are at stake, so a one-time exception seems to be in order.

Photo Credit: Canadian Football league

More from Michael Taube.   @michaeltaube

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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