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CFL board of governors votes unanimously to start 2021 season in August after meeting

The CFL says professional football will return to Canada in August. The CFL's board of governors voted unanimously Monday in favour of an amended collective bargaining agreement and starting the 2021 campaign Aug. 5.

The CFL says professional football will return to Canada in August.

The CFL's board of governors voted unanimously Monday in favour of an amended collective bargaining agreement and starting the 2021 campaign Aug. 5. It will mark the league's first action since November 2019 after it didn't play last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CFL will release its 2021 schedule Tuesday. Board approval means training camps will be scheduled to open July 10.

"To say this is a happy day for the CFL is a monumental understatement," commissioner Randy Ambrosie said during a video conference. "Obviously we've all been waiting for this for a very long time.

"It's taken an awful lot of hard work to get here. Perhaps it's best to say being disappointed in 2020 just doubled and redoubled and redoubled again our resolve to get back on the field in 2021."

Last August, the CFL shelved plans for an abbreviated schedule after failing to secure a $30-million, interest-free loan from the Canadian government. A source has told The Canadian Press the league lost between $60-and-$80 million last year by not playing games.

The source has been granted anonymity because the CFL has never revealed its 2020 financial figures. And even though teams will play in 2021, the expectation is all nine franchises will incur some level of financial loss this year.

The CFL unveiled plans in November for a full 18-game season to begin in June but later pushed that back to Aug. 5 and reduced the number of games to 14. The league also wanted to have a "significant" amount of fans in the stands, something the Ontario government has not signed off on. Three of the league's nine franchises are based in the province (Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa).

Earlier Monday, Ontario sports minister Lisa MacLeod left the door open to fans returning to stadiums, adding it's a plan that's currently being worked on in the province. The four East Division teams are expected to open their seasons on the road to allow more time for fans to be allowed back into the stands when the clubs return home near the end of August.

"I think it's just a totally different environment for us today," Ambrosie said about the difference now compared to last August for the CFL. ""Probably the single biggest issue, frankly, is that we all know we couldn't have any fans in our stadiums last August.

"Now we are looking very dramatically at the opportunity to have CFL fans return to CFL stadiums and watch the game they love."

The Grey Cup game was also pushed back from Nov. 21 to Dec. 12 in Hamilton.

"Maybe this is the year that moving the Grey Cup back is the perfect answer," Ambrosie said. "By that time hopefully all Canadians will be in the mood for a national celebration and really getting together and that's what we're aspiring to."

Both the CFLPA and players alike welcomed Monday's news.

"We are now in the best possible position to play football in 2021," the CFLPA said in a statement. "We are pleased the CFL board of governors did the right thing by voting in favour of a good and fair agreement that makes it possible for games to be played, with strong player safety standards in place, as soon as August 5. 

"CFLPA members are looking forward to getting back to the game as well as the communities they proudly represent. We will continue to closely monitor decisions made by the various levels of government to understand how we can meet pandemic safety protocols and get players back to work."

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo took to Twitter to voice his happiness.

"To everyone involved in making this morning feel like Christmas morning thank you!' he tweeted. "To the fans thank you for your patience & support during this long delay.

"I hope to see CFL viewership & engagement skyrocket as it has been greatly missed. It's time to play some CFL football."

However, a hurdle still remains as the federal government continues to examine the CFL's request for modified quarantine for this season. An official with the Public Health Agency of Canada told The Canadian Press last week Ottawa has received the request and is reviewing it in consultation with provincial health authorities.

The CFL is seeking the same exemptions from Ottawa that it gave the NHL. The federal government waived its mandatory 14-day quarantine period for players acquired by Canadian NHL teams from American clubs "under national interest grounds" ahead of the league's April 12 trade deadline.

Under those terms, CFL players would observe a seven-day quarantine upon arrival into Canada and be subject to daily testing for COVID-19. Players would be eligible to suit up for their teams while continuing to undergo daily testing the following week.

Ambrosie added the decision regarding whether fans who attend games must first be vaccinated will be left up to local officials.

"Right now, we still have some work to do," Ambrosie said. "But we feel very good about all the things we'll need to get our players to a July 10 training camp kickoff and then getting them on to the field for the Aug. 5 start."

However, there's still a risk of a new variant causing problems. For example, plans in Britain to its lift COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were extended by a month Monday because of the infectious Delta variant.

"We are watching very carefully all of the developments on the health-care side," Ambrosie said. "We don't know everything that's in front of us but we feel like we have a really solid plan.

"We're just going to encourage everyone to continue the pace of vaccinations and we believe that's the best way for us and all of our society to ensure nothing knocks us off course."

When the CFL kicks off its season, it will do so in the traditional East-West alignment with six teams making the playoffs. However, Ambrosie said the league is leaving the door open to changing that, if needed.

"I'm pretty confident, candidly, we're going to go with our traditional format for this year," Ambrosie said. "But leaving it open is an opportunity to make decisions on the fly.

"If we've learned anything through this past 17 months, it's that sometimes things change. We want to be able to accommodate those changes if and when you need to."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press