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CFL goes from near extinction to remarkable recovery in one season

Winnipeg Blue Bombers cfl football sports
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The Canadian Football League had much to celebrate on Sunday.

For one thing, this year’s Grey Cup was an exciting and memorable contest.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-25 in overtime to win the 108th Grey Cup at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton. (These teams played in the previous Grey Cup in 2019, with Winnipeg winning 33-12.)

Hamilton, which hadn’t won since 1999 and had home-field advantage, was down 4-0 at the end of the first quarter to the defending champions. They went on a tear in the second and third quarters, thanks to the strong performance of second-string quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (who replaced the injured Dane Evans). Touchdown passes to Steven Dunbar and Brandon Banks enabled the Tiger-Cats to roar ahead 22-10 with slightly over 12 minutes left in the game.

It looked like Hamilton’s drought was finally over.

Alas, looks can be deceiving.

Winnipeg made a huge comeback in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Zach Collaros found his rhythm, including a 29-yard TD pass to Nic Demski. Kicker Sergio Castillo’s perfect performance (five for five, including a 45-yard field goal) also proved to be invaluable.

The Blue Bombers took the lead 25-22 late in the fourth quarter. The Tiger-Cats tied it with a field goal by Michael Domagala (who finished a perfect three for three) with only five seconds remaining, which led to the fourth overtime game in Grey Cup history.

Collaros threw a 13-yard strike to Darvin Adams, followed by a two-point conversion to Rasheed Bailey, on Winnipeg’s first possession. Hamilton struggled with a 10-yard penalty after the first snap, followed by a two-yard pass by Masoli and a poor throw that bounced off two Blue Bombers and was finally intercepted by Kyrie Wilson.

Game over. Jubilation in Winnipeg and further heartbreak in Hamilton.

Any hopes of hearing the Tiger-Cats’ famous battle cry, “Oskee-wee-wee,” at Tim Hortons Field were replaced by what longtime Twitter user Hank (@Hankers) amusingly wrote, “Wee Wee Weennipeg.”

Who knows? It may catch on!

All kidding aside, the CFL had a second reason to celebrate. The league went from near extinction in 2020 to a remarkable recovery in 2021.

COVID-19 forced the cancellation of one of North America’s oldest sports competitions last year. There was no CFL regular season or Grey Cup.

It had been over a century since this last happened. The Grey Cup wasn’t awarded during the First World War, between 1916 and 1918. A short-term rules dispute with the Canadian Rugby Union caused a cancellation in 1919, too.

That’s it. Nothing else has interrupted the Grey Cup, including the Second World War, occasional labour disputes and a few teams going into receivership. Clean as a whistle until the worst global health pandemic since the Spanish flu reached our shores.

In May 2020, the CFL requested $150 million in financial aid from the federal government during the first lockdown. The thinking was that $30 million would be allocated to the league’s challenges in dealing with COVID-19, while the remaining $120 million would be used if the season was abandoned.

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said he wanted the league to be “accountable to taxpayers.” They proposed to repay some of it through “community programs, tourism promotion, the Grey Cup, our digital channels.”

When the Liberals signalled their disinterest, the request was reduced to $42.5 million in July 2020, and it was further lowered to a $30-million interest-free loan a month later. The federal government ultimately declined this latter amount – and reportedly turned it down again this April.

It was therefore left up to the league to ensure that Canadian football would become a popular and economically viable sport once more.

Hopes for a 21-week regular season were dashed due to COVID-19 protocols. The season start was pushed back to August from June. Negotiations with the XFL came and went. Some stadiums were open to full capacity and others were capped.

Fortunately, the CFL persevered and made it work.

According to a Nov. 25 press release, “95 per cent of all CFL players will be fully vaccinated (will have received their second dose for at least 14 days)” by Dec. 1. There were only 34 positive COVID-19 tests out of 42,200, or a “negative test rate of 99.92 per cent.” Most importantly, the league “experienced one outbreak, which resulted in just one game being moved to a later date, on which it was successfully completed.”

This enabled all nine teams to play a 14-game season. Fans returned in droves, leading to solid increases in merchandise, food and beverage sales. Most importantly, the league’s economic engine is now moving in the right direction.

A stronger and more financially viable CFL means the Tiger-Cats will get an opportunity to win that elusive Grey Cup next season. As for the Blue Bombers, they’ll be dreaming of a third straight championship on the mantle – and a piece of league history.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.


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