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Edmonton Eskimos players raise the Grey Cup after they defeated the Ottawa Redblacks in the CFL's 103rd Grey Cup championship football game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, November 29, 2015.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

The commissioner of the Canadian Football League pledged Monday that 2021 “will be the biggest comeback season in the history of Canadian football,” as he announced the league was scrapping its plans for a shortened 2020 season after failing to secure financial assistance from the federal government.

“I’m heartsick for our players,” Randy Ambrosie told reporters. The league’s board of governors made the cancellation decision Monday morning, after learning late Friday that the Liberal government had denied its request for a $30-million interest-free loan.

The league, which was originally scheduled to kick off its 2020 campaign in early June before the coronavirus hit, had drawn up a hub-city plan under which it would gather all nine CFL teams in Winnipeg this fall. Each team would play a six-game regular season, with no fans in stands at the Blue Bombers’ IG Field, with the top eight advancing to three weeks of playoffs. The league would have staged a total of 34 games, including the Grey Cup.

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The cancellation means this will be the first year since 1919 that the Grey Cup will not be awarded.

The hub-city plan was itself a change of strategy from the spring, when Ambrosie all but ruled out playing games without fans.

On Monday, he said that, in retrospect, “there are things I would have liked to have done differently,” adding that he does feel “responsible for the fact that we are not on the field this year.”

In late April, Ambrosie came under fire from politicians, fans and even the CFL’s own players’ union for requesting a federal bailout of up to $150-million. The league later modified and then revoked that request, but it continued to seek federal help.

Last month, the league was reportedly in talks with a pair of government agencies, including the Business Development Bank of Canada, for a loan of up to $44-million, but the commercial terms it had been offered were too onerous to accept.

During an appearance in front of a parliamentary finance committee in May, Ambrosie said CFL teams collectively “lose between $10-million and $20-million a season.” He added that if the season were scrapped and the teams were forced to give back season-ticket deposits and refund money they had received for TV rights, “our financial crisis will become very real and very big.”

More than most big sports leagues, which earn the bulk of their revenue from high-priced TV contracts, the CFL’s business model leans heavily on the sale of game tickets. In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, gate receipts and other game-day revenue accounted for 55.7 per cent of income for the Edmonton football team. TV revenue made up less than 17 per cent of the team’s revenue.

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Ambrosie said that it had been “frustrating” to see other leagues, such as the NHL, NBA and even Canadian Premier League soccer pivot to fan-less games. “The big leagues, the financial resources they had at their disposal to throw at a hub [city plan], as they have, we don’t have.”

While the CFL projected that a truncated season staged without fans in stands would still lose tens of millions of dollars, an entirely scuttled season could lose more.

It also hoped this fall could give it a rare, relatively unobstructed access to Canadian sports fans during a year of chaos. “We did see a real opportunity, particularly in that October-November window, to really kind of dominate the landscape, where the NHL season would end and the NBA season would end, and we would really have some space to tell our story,” Ambrosie said.

The league hoped it could “really put our football on display and really take centre stage in Canada. We felt very, very good about that.”

Instead, Ambrosie said, the league will lick its wounds and take the opportunity of the extra few months it now has to work on “operational efficiency” to improve its financial framework.

Ambrosie also told reporters the league planned to court a broader fan base, using “this time to reach into communities of newer Canadians we have not had the opportunity to tell how amazing it is to sit in a CFL stadium and cheer on your local team, how much you’ll feel more Canadian when you do these things, using our stadiums to celebrate being Canadian, using our stadiums to celebrate our diversity.”

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The executive director of the CFL Players’ Association said that while the cancellation was “devastating” for the athletes and the families, the pandemic had highlighted some of the structural weaknesses in the league’s operations. “We have an opportunity now to fix this, moving forward, including the relationship between the players and the league,” said Brian Ramsay, in an interview on Monday.

The players are not expected to be paid any of their 2020 salaries. The league is scheduled to meet with the players’ association on Tuesday to discuss helping them access the federal Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.

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