Without riches of Big 4, Canadian sports leagues brace for uncertain future

The commissioners of the two fledgling Canadian sports leagues knew it was going to be an uphill battle in the early years of existence just to survive. What they hadn't envisioned was a global pandemic completely shutting down its operations

Commissioners of CEBL, CPL and CFL deal with financial calamity of pandemic

The Canadian Elite Basketball League confirmed Thursday it will hold a championship tournament in St. Catharines, Ont., beginning July 15 in place of its regular season. (Saskatchewan Rattlers/Twitter)

Mike Morreale and David Clanachan were under no illusions when they began their foray into the Canadian sports landscape a year ago.

As commissioners of the two fledgling Canadian sports leagues — the Canadian Elite Basketball League and the Canadian Premier League, respectively — both knew it was going to be an uphill battle in the early years of existence just to survive.

They made room for growing pains — smaller attendance, hiccups in the game day production, tweaks to their social media game plan, along with the uncontrollable variables that come with starting a new league.

But after what each league calls successful inaugural seasons, it was the hope and expectation of Morreale and Clanachan to further cement their positions in communities across the land in the second year.

They could have never, in their wildest contemplations, come up with a scenario that saw both leagues grounded, along with almost everything else, due to a global pandemic.

"We're keenly aware of what's going on around us and our priority is making sure people are safe and healthy," Morreale said. "There a lot of people not thinking about sports right now."

On Wednesday, Morreale announced the beginning of the CEBL season, set to start in May, has been postponed until at least June.

Mike Morreale. (CEBL)
"With restrictions in place limiting the size of public gatherings and the closure of some team practice and game venues into June, opening the season as scheduled in May is not feasible," Morreale said.

Morreale said the postponement is obvious and needed and won't come as a surprise to anyone. But he said the league wants to be thoughtful and measured when it comes to making announcements and providing updates.

"We're going to revisit it every month," Morreale said. "I feel for our players. I'm trying to create some normalcy in their lives, and I can't. So, there's some frustration there."

 As a former CFL all-star, Morreale knows all about momentum.

The two-time Grey Cup champion helped guide his 1999 Hamilton Tiger-Cats all the way to a championship, including an upset victory over Montreal in the East Final, and was named the Most Outstanding Canadian in the title game against the Calgary Stampeders.

But momentum can be a fickle and fleeting thing.

"What can we do to turn that positive momentum in the inaugural season into future positive momentum?" Morreale told CBC Sports. "There will be a CEBL in 2021 whether we play this year or not. That is going to happen."

Hopes were high heading into the sophomore season of the CEBL — the league announced during the offseason the addition of the Ottawa BlackJacks.

There will be a CEBL in 2021 whether we play this year or not. That is going to happen.- Mike Morreale

The seven-team league — with Hamilton, Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Guelph, Ont., Fraser Valley (Abbotsford, B.C.) and St. Catharines, Ont. (Niagara River Lions) —competes with 70 per cent of the 10-player rosters made up of Canadian content.

Fans in communities not accustomed to seeing any kind of professional sport had a team to rally around. It culminated in the Saskatchewan Rattlers winning the inaugural title in front of a raucous home crowd in Saskatoon.

"I'm trying to look at this on the bright side," Morreale said. "We're trying to do everything in our power to ensure we return to normalcy."

With the season postponed indefinitely, however, Morreale revealed that a number of weeks ago the league had to lay off some ticketing staff.

"We're going to take advantage of as much as the government subsidies to keep our staff and to get back from this as fast as possible," he said.

Fans cheer on the Saskatchewan Rattlers during a game last year. (Submitted by CEBL)

Make no mistake, this unexpected and unprecedented halt is certainly going to provide challenges moving forward for the CEBL and other Canadian leagues. They don't come with the billions in dollars of revenue that bigger leagues, like the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, bring in regularly.

"We need help. We are still a fledgling league. It's us, the CFL and the CPL," Morreale said.

The CPL on Monday announced it would be reducing wages for players and staff.

In a statement, Clanachan said players will have 25 per cent of their contracts deferred, while coaches, technical staff, and club and league employees will take unspecified pay reductions.

The season was set to start last weekend and run through Oct. 4. In late March, Clanachan announced the league is postponed indefinitely.

In February, the CPL said it was moving away from spring and fall split-seasons to a single-table format in 2020. The eight teams, including Expansion Atletico Ottawa, were scheduled to play 28 games total, 14 at home and 14 on the road.

The eight teams include Cavalry FC (Calgary), FC Edmonton, Forge FC (Hamilton, Ont.), HFX Wanderers (Halifax), Pacific FC (Langford, B.C.), Valour FC (Winnipeg), York 9 FC (York Region, Ont.) and expansion Atlético Ottawa.

Clanachan said they continue to run through a number of permutations to salvage some sort of season, including a condensed schedule.

"It's concerning. It's tough. We wait. And at the right moment we'll be ready to go," Clanachan said.

Clanachan's optimism is unwavering in the face of the unknown — he said despite the financial toll this is taking on a start-up league needing wins early in its existence, the CPL is not going anywhere.

The Canadian Premier League announced pay cuts Monday as its second season has been delayed because of the pandemic. (Twitter/@FCEdmontonNow)

"We see a bigger purpose here. We're here to stay," he said.

"At the end of the day it goes back to one thing. We said this was going to be a league for Canadians, by Canadians and we've stayed true to that."

Clanachan points to the roster structure to reflect the homegrown nature of the league — it's designed for the benefit of Canadian players.

Like the CFL, there are strict roster rules in place. Teams must be made up of at least 50 per cent plus one Canadians, and must field a minimum of six Canadian starters during matches.

"This game has taken seed in a big way in this country. We've hit the ultimate point and we need to keep moving it forward," Clanachan said.

While the CEBL and CPL tries to survive this pandemic only having very little in way of history and experience to lean on, the CFL is also facing challenges despite existing for more than 100 years.

In a recent interview with CBC Sports, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said a cancelled season would be "devastating" for the league.

"Almost all your revenue streams go away at that point," Ambrosie said.

The league, which was slated to kick off the regular season on June 11, announced in the beginning of April that the season won't start before the beginning of July.

Ambrosie said they continue to hold regular meetings and are having conversations with all CFL stakeholders about what a condensed season would look like and if it's plausible.

As the days tick by and clarity continues to elude Ambrosie and sports leagues around the world, the CFL is running out of time and options to save a 2020 season — there are some conversations involving playing games without fans, but the CFL is heavily dependent on gate revenue which makes it seem nearly impossible.

CFL season hangs in balance

"I wish there was a silver bullet to this to make it better. But because there isn't, we're using good, honest dialogue as our guide," Ambrosie said.

While the season hangs in the balance, the stoppage has also ended much of the excitement and momentum, at least for now, around expansion to Halifax.

In December, the Halifax regional council voted in favour of providing a one-time $20-million contribution to a stadium project, with a few caveats attached to the funding. There were steps being made toward realizing a 10-team league. That's all been sidelined for now.

When asked specifically about how this pandemic would impact such things as expansion to Halifax and playing the Grey Cup this year, Ambrosie would not directly speak to it.

"We'll take this one day at a time and hope all of these things can happen," he said.

It's all anyone can do right now.


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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