The prospect of playing in empty stadiums isn’t exactly ideal, but at least it is an option for American sports leagues looking to get onto the field, court or rink amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Canadian Football League, on the other hand, can’t use playing in empty stadiums as a fallback plan. Unlike NFL teams, which reap vast windfalls from the league’s billion-dollar television contracts, CFL teams receive a comparatively modest $5.6 million Canadian (a little more than $4 million U.S.) per year from the league’s domestic television deal with broadcasters TSN and RDS. Instead, they are heavily reliant on ticket sales. In 2018, according to the Toronto Sun, the league’s three publicly owned “community teams” — the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Edmonton Eskimos — collected between 45 percent and 55 percent of their revenue from gate receipts and game-day concessions for an operating profit of between $1.4 million and $2.6 million.

For comparison’s sake, in 2018, the Washington Redskins took in an estimated $491 million in revenue. Only $89 million — 18 percent — of that came from gate receipts.

The coronavirus pandemic, then, has become an existential problem for the CFL as bans on large public gatherings remain in place. The league’s regular season usually begins in mid-June, but it already has pushed the starting date back to July at the earliest. And on Thursday, Commissioner Randy Ambrosie painted a bleak picture while appearing via video conference before a House of Commons standing committee on finance, saying the CFL’s “future is very much in jeopardy.”

“Ours is a big brand but not a wealthy business,” Ambrosie continued. “Unlike large U.S.-based leagues, our biggest source of revenue is not TV — it’s ticket sales. Governments coping with covid-19 — for reasons of public health that we totally support — have made it impossible for us to do what we do. Our best-case scenario for this year is a drastically truncated season. And our most likely scenario is no season at all.”

Last week, news broke that the CFL — whose teams collectively lost around $20 million last season — had requested up to $150 million in assistance over the next three years from the federal government, a request that did not sit well with some legislators, who pointed out that some CFL teams were profitable and that others were privately owned by wealthy individuals or corporations.

“The fact is that in the face of essentially a zero-revenue model, all of our teams, including our community teams, are going to suffer significant losses that are going to be hard to recover from,” Ambrosie said. “The real issue is this crisis is essentially going to quadruple or more the financial losses that our teams will take in a season that could potentially be lost altogether.”

One legislator, Peter Fragiskatos of Ontario, asked Ambrosie why the CFL didn’t approach a bank for a loan instead of asking the federal government.

The commissioner said that because some teams were publicly owned, they couldn’t take on “traditional commercial credit.”

Responded Fragiskatos, “If banks won’t support the CFL, why should the federal government support the CFL?”

The CFL has been on precarious financial footing a number of times. In the 1990s, the league expanded to seven U.S. cities, using the expansion fees to keep its other teams afloat. In 2016, former CFL commissioner John Tory (now the mayor of Toronto) revealed that the league received a bailout from the Tim Hortons doughnut shop chain in 1996 so it could pay the bonus checks received by the winners of that year’s Grey Cup. In September 2003, the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats met in what was dubbed the “Bankruptcy Bowl”; both franchises had been taken over by the league after their owners failed to pay their teams’ bills.

But the league has yet to face an issue as dire as the coronavirus pandemic, which could either wipe out an entire season or, at best, force the league to start late in the year, when it would compete even more directly with the financially stout Goliath to the south.

“We’ve been clear to the federal government we want to be accountable to taxpayers,” Ambrosie said last week. “In all conversations we’ve talked about making sure the model would hold the league accountable to repaying Canadians back through community programs, tourism promotion, the Grey Cup, our digital channels.

“Anything and everything to repay the government we would be amendable to.”

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