From Jeff Hamilton:
To provide a better picture of the situation heading into Monday's meeting, let's break into two groups: why you should be optimistic and why you shouldn't. There are issues that have been smoothed over, paving the way for a season to start in late summer, and there are others that are still being figured out as the clock ticks down.
As a bit of a spoiler, I believe we'll get an approval on Monday, with the worst-case scenario being another delayed start. Simply put, I can't picture a situation where CFL football isn't played in 2021, which is a much different attitude compared to how I felt at this time last year.
Why you should be optimistic
One of the big reasons why I wasn't confident in a 2020 season getting off the ground, even as some were running around to bring a bubble campaign to Winnipeg in the fall, was due to the lack of communication between the league and its players. That doesn't appear to be the case this time around, with teams already starting to do online fitness updates and hold virtual information meetings.
Those meetings have been mostly centred around vaccinations, including the importance of getting them and where to get them, while answering any questions about the effects they might have on the season. While not all players are currently on board — a trend that exists in all pro sports leagues — there has been significant progress in this area
In Winnipeg, the likes of quarterback Zach Collaros, defensive end Willie Jefferson and running back Andrew Harris, among others, have received their first dose and are awaiting a second needle before the start of camp. High vaccination numbers can and will drastically alter how a team does business, so it’s clear that while teams can’t force a player to get vaccinated, they do have a preference.
Another positive sign is the news that broke Thursday that the CFL Players' Association has agreed to ratify 19 amendments to the current CBA, which expires at the end of 2021. That leaves just a final vote from the CFL's board of governors, which is also expected to approve the amendments during Monday’s meeting.
Some of the amendments create a certain level of flexibility, including the addition of two more playoff teams at the discretion of the league. But that’s likely only to be used in the event there's a massively shortened season and a need to keep teams in the mix all year long by expanding the current playoff format of six teams to eight. A similar plan was in place had the CFL gone forward with a six-game season in 2020.
In the amendments, there was also confirmation there will be no pre-season games.
Another reason to be optimistic is the CFL has already finished a schedule that takes the country's COVID-19 numbers and the various current provincial health regulations into consideration – along with a willingness to adjust to changing circumstances. With some provinces, particularly those out east, still trying to work out plans to have a significant amount of butts in seats, there are teams out west eager to play host.
With Saskatchewan and Alberta both trending in a direction that will see most, if not all, fans back by the end of summer, and with Manitoba and B.C. also working to get sizeable crowds by August, there's a good chance the season begins with games played in the western parts of the country. That's been the plan for some time now and could include teams from out east playing a "home" game out west.
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief medical officer, said earlier this week that as part of the province's re-opening plan he hoped to have services and facilities open at a rate of 50 per cent by August long weekend and under "limited restrictions" by the first weekend of September. Those marks are based on high vaccination rates of first and second doses but would apply to fans at IG Field.
The Bombers are also considering permitting only fans who are fully vaccinated to attend games, which would likely mean allowing a full crowd. But nothing has been decided at this point.
Lastly, despite all teams understanding they'll likely lose money again this year, the season doesn't hinge on any federal money coming in. Some teams, including the Bombers, have been thrown a lifeline by provincial governments and others (read: privately-owned teams) are better positioned to wade through the financial hit. The CFL claimed not being able to secure a $30-million interest-free loan from the federal government was a significant reason for not playing in 2020.
Why you (maybe) shouldn't be optimistic
First off, what you hear publicly isn't always what's being said behind closed doors. It's no secret Toronto, Montreal and B.C. were all weary of playing in 2020 and voiced that to the league. Can't say I blame them, as the financial losses that would have been accrued had the CFL played last year would have taken even longer to recoup than the money that was bled with no season.
The question now is how much of that attitude still exists, and if there are any other teams that are looking at the balance sheets and wondering whether it might just be prudent to wait until 2022. I don't think that's the case, but with the vote not having to be unanimous to pass, it would be interesting to know which team voted which way.
The other thing is the CFL has been working off handshake deals with the provincial governments, which are far too busy to give clear answers about questions such as fans attending games. While no provincial health bodies having signed off on their respective team's return-to-play protocols, at least not formally, it does leave the window open, if only a crack, that what they're promising now won't be what they're promising later.
The other issue with provincial governments not giving the plans an official check mark is that those approvals are required before the federal government signs off. The Public Health Agency of Canada has also not approved travel for CFL players crossing over the border from the U.S., though that too, is said to be heading in a positive direction and will eventually be approved.
Then there's the fear of enduring a fourth wave of COVID-19. That may not play as big an issue as one might think, so long as vaccination rates are high. It's why the CFL has been pushing so hard to get fans and players vaccinated — it's truly the best way to solving most of the league’s pressing issues and getting back onto the field.