TORONTO — An MP with a long history with the CFL is hoping the league has called an audible in its approach to securing financial help from the federal government.
Liberal MP Bob Bratina, who spent 20 years doing play-by-play on Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts radio broadcasts before entering politics, is questioning the CFL’s strategy.
Last month, commissioner Randy Ambrosie revealed the league had approached Ottawa for up to $150 million in assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CFL’s request involved $30 million immediately, additional funds if has an abbreviated season and up to $120 million should it be forced to cancel the campaign outright.
Last Thursday night, Ambrosie testified before a House of Commons standing committee on finance. Ambrosie painted a dismal picture, saying the league’s future was “very much in jeopardy,” and that its teams collectively lost about $20 million last year.
Ambrosie also admitted for the first time the most likely scenario for the CFL was a cancelled 2020 season. Afterwards, Ambrosie was asked if he was asking for a bailout or handout and was roundly criticized for failing to divulge how federal monies would be spent, and for not having the players involved.
Bratina, who represents Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, said there’s a much better way for the CFL to go about this.
“The CFL is unique,” said Bratina, who met with the CFL the day before Ambrosie’s testimony. “I think there’s value in the league but I think it needs to be dealt with from (the perspective of) nine cities, six provinces and the federal government working together to come up with a plan which, really, shouldn’t be that expensive in that context.”
In 2017, the federal government was part of a $98.2-million, five-year contract extension granted to the Canadian Grand Prix. Denis Coderre, Montreal’s mayor at the time, and representatives of the federal and Quebec governments were all involved in ensuring the Formula One race remained in the city through 2029.
Ottawa committed $36.2 million, with the city of Montreal contributing $34 million and the Quebec government adding $28 million. Quebec also put $18 million toward improvements at the Jean Drapeau Parc race venue.
Not only were the venue improvements specified, the funding also included measures to fight sexual exploitation during race week.
“The return on our investment is excellent,” federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said at the time. “It’s not only the money that is generated during the event itself, it’s that this event brands Montreal around the world.”
Ambrosie didn’t provide federal politicians any indications where the government funds would actually be used And failing to tie the presentation to included sponsorships or infrastructure benefits created the feeling for some that the CFL was asking for a handout.
Bratina said Ambrosie and the CFL should’ve taken the same approach the Canadian Grand Prix did in becoming involved in a joint venture.
“It was the approach I suggested (to the CFL),” Bratina said. “The fact is the league represents nine cities and six provinces and so somehow they should’ve put together a group.
“I think the approach needs to be, ‘We have nine cities, six provinces, the federal government. How do we work together to ensure the survival of the CFL?’
“There are nine teams with probably 2,000-3,000 people working full-time in the nine cities. Plus, the part-time people who show up for the games all over Canada.”
Ambrosie is a co-chair of the Professional Sport Council established by Ontario’s Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Minister Lisa MacLeod.
Before becoming an MP in 2015, Bratina was a Hamilton councillor (2004-2010) and the city’s mayor (2010-2014).
Since Ambrosie’s testimony, the CFL has resumed discussing potential contingency plans for the 2020 season with the CFL Players’ Association. The two sides reached an impasse April 16 and didn’t talk for roughly two weeks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press