There’s been some news (and lots of speculation) lately about a possible partnership between the CFL and the XFL. Some people are even wondering whether they might merge. It’s getting tougher to differentiate what’s actually happened from what some fans fear might be next, so let’s look at the state of both leagues and try to sort out what might be going on.
What’s up with the CFL?
The 63-year-old league hasn’t played a down since Nov. 24, 2019, when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup game to snap their 29-year championship drought. The pandemic caused the entire 2020 season to be cancelled after the federal government rejected the CFL’s request for a $30-million bailout, which the league said it needed in order to play an abbreviated season in a bubble-like environment in Winnipeg.
The plan now is to return this spring as normal. Back in November, the CFL released a full 2021 schedule. Training camps for all nine teams are slated to open in early May and the first pre-season game is May 23. The regular season begins June 10 with a Grey Cup rematch between Winnipeg and Hamilton. The playoffs start Nov. 7 and culminate with the Grey Cup game Nov. 21 in Hamilton. More intradivisional matchups are on the slate this year to reduce travel, but each team is scheduled to play the usual 18 regular-season games. The CFL would like every game to take place in teams’ home stadiums with fans in the stands.
However, that’s largely out of the league’s hands. The federal government and the provinces with CFL teams will ultimately decide if, when and how many fans will be allowed in stadiums this year. Many U.S.-based sports teams are already welcoming fans back to their games, but the vaccine rollout is going much quicker in the States and many of its jurisdictions take a more laissez-approach to the pandemic. A delayed and/or shortened CFL season starting in, say, August could make sense because many more Canadians will be vaccinated by then and possibly allowed to attend large outdoor gatherings. CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has indicated a willingness to be flexible on start dates and attendance limits. But it’s going to be very complicated to sort all this out.
Earlier this week the CFL proposed an 0n-start season start to the CFLPA, with the caveat being that if there are no fans in stands players would take a 20% pay cut. So far, this doesn’t seem to be sitting well and will almost certainly lead to more negotiations. Now, the million dollar question, will they iron it all out in time for the 2021 season?
Earlier this month, the leagues announced they were discussing a potential collaboration. But they didn’t provide details, so imaginations ran wild. Some speculated that a merger was in the works, and there was enough smoke to picture that fire if you wanted to.
The XFL said it was putting its 2022 return plans on hold “pending the outcome of our conversations with the CFL.” Ambrosie insisted his league remains “full speed ahead on our return-to-play plan for the 2021 CFL season,” but added that the talks were about “the future beyond 2021.” The Rock sparked more interest by posting on his massively popular Instagram account that the CFL “changed my life” because being cut from the Calgary Stampeders’ practice squad 26 years ago “set me on a path” to becoming a pro-wrestling sensation and a big movie star.
Then, last week, the United Football Players Association — an organization that advocates for non-NFL pros — added fuel to the fire by tweeting that “multiple sources, including former and current league coaches and executives, have indicated to us that there is a strong likelihood that the CFL may cancel the 2021 and 2022 seasons as well.”
The CFL called this claim “false” and pointed out that its players have their own union (the CFLPA) and that the UFPA has no standing in the league. “We plan to play this year. We intend to play this year. And we are working very hard towards playing this year,” the CFL added in a statement. That includes working towards provincial and federal approvals for our health and safety plan.”
So what happens next?
No one seems to have any real idea. The simplest outcome is probably some kind of joint marketing agreement between the two leagues — maybe even a revenue-sharing deal and/or player-loan arrangement too. A full-on merger would be much tougher to pull off.
But many avid CFL fans are filling the information void with their worst fears. Can you blame ’em? A quarter century removed from its laughable experiment with U.S. expansion, the CFL had seemed to settle into a nice niche — a still-flawed but relatively stable all-Canadian league with a fun product and a loyal fanbase. Now, some hardcore fans are thinking, the CFL might throw all that away to partner with some twice-failed, punchline, American league that might want us to dump our big fields and three downs and other traditions? And for what? A bit of money? Even if they’re overestimating the chances of a merger, you can understand the fans’ anxiety over the thought of losing something they love.
On the other hand, can you blame the CFL for exploring its options? The loss of the 2020 season was a traumatic experience for a league that isn’t blessed with the kind of deep-pocketed owners you see in the NFL or even the NHL. The CFL learned last year that it can’t expect a government bailout, and who knows if fans will be allowed back in stadiums in time for this season? That must be terrifying for a league that’s so gate-driven. With so much out of its control right now, you can understand the CFL’s desire to consider more aggressive measures to get back on its feet.
In retrospect, this quote from Ambrosie, made three weeks before the CFL/XFL talks were revealed, was telling:
We’re certainly, like almost all businesses, wearing the battle scars of what has been a very, very difficult time. That’s why we’ve been focused on looking for as many creative solutions to potential revenue streams and funding solutions.”
Hopefully, those solutions end up being something that CFL (and possibly XFL) fans can live with.
Where do you think the CFL/XFL discussions will lead? Will we see a partnership? Possibly a full-blown merger? Let us know your thoughts down in the comments below or join the conversation on Discord.