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After a cancelled season, CFL returns, but questions remain about viability

CFL back, but for how long?

It’s back, but for how long?

That’s one of the key questions facing the financially beleaguered Canadian Football League, which earlier this month announced it will resume play on Aug. 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, when the club hosts the Edmonton Elks on Aug. 19.

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 Sept. 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 Sept. 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.’”

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