U.S. markets closed

North America's start-up operations hit by COVID-19 fallout

Steve Keating
FILE PHOTO: CPL: Canadian Premier League Finals

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - On the North American sports scene the Canadian Premier League is a corner store operation and, like all small businesses that have been hit by the new coronavirus, the future is uncertain.

Last year, the professional soccer league's first, the eight team CPL established a toehold in the Canadian sports market but is now hanging on by a thread.

The stadiums are empty, the new fans it had painstakingly cultivated are maybe gone forever.

There is no major television deal to pump cash into club coffers and no sign the federal government is ready to throw the league a requested $15 million lifeline.

A successful inaugural season saw the CPL, a league that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic across four time zones, post an average attendance of 4,279.

Without those fans in the stands CPL commissioner David Clanachan told Reuters it was hard to imagine how the gate-driven league can operate this season -- if there is one.

"It would be very difficult," said Clanachan. "Could there be another way to do things? I don't know, I don't know what that looks like.

"Live sport requires bums in seats and, rightfully so, there are bigger problems than not having sport, but when it comes to this scenario no people in the stands means no revenue, no revenue means you don't have a business and no business means jobs go away and that's a big issue."

Rugby, another sport attempting to establish itself in Canada, is facing similar challenges.

The Toronto Wolfpack, the transatlantic outfit that plays in England's Super League, have spent three years climbing to the top tier, growing a loyal following along the way.

In November the rugby league club made headlines around the rugby world when they signed Sonny Bill Williams, one of the sport's biggest names, to a two-year deal for a record $9 million.

However, nearly seven months later the All Blacks great has yet to set foot in Toronto and might not this year even if the Super League does restart.


TICKET SALES

With no share of the Super League's TV deal or access to the 16 million pounds ($27.1 million CDN) loan the British government has made available to the Rugby Football League, the sport's governing body, the Wolfpack have to rely on ticket sales as their main revenue source.

Wolfpack CEO and president Bob Hunter told Reuters that if the Super League does resume play in mid-August, as is the current plan, the club might well not play any games in Toronto at all if fans are still not allowed to attend.

"No not really feasible for us," Hunter said. "We'll do anything the league asks us to do but we fly over at our expense the other team, put them up, feed them and then ship them back.

"So to fly over for an empty stadium game would not make any sense. We would play that game in the UK.

"To build that fan base this is a real stunt in our growth."

For the Toronto Arrows, the only Canadian club in Major League Rugby -- North America's top-level rugby union championship -- the season is over. MLR is shutting down, cutting its losses and looking ahead to next year.

"We don't have big broadcast rights so we probably save ourselves some money by closing the season down and paying out the players," Arrows vice-president and general manager Mark Winokur told Reuters. "Just pack up the tent and start building for next January."

The Arrows, like the Wolfpack and CPL, say they will investigate if they qualify for assistance from the $500 million in COVID-19 relief the Canadian federal government has put aside to support arts, culture and sport.

"We're all on that hamster wheel trying to figure out how to move forward," said the CPL's Clanachan. "You have to help yourself, you've got to be creative. I wouldn't bet against us, we're pretty scrappy. We might be small but we're mighty."


(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)