CFL

'On the right track': CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie embracing role leading league

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie isn't going anywhere. The 60-year-old Winnipeg native has held the job since 2017 and said Tuesday he has no immediate plans to step away.

Expansion team in Maritimes could make product more enticing moving forward

A man smiles while standing next to a trophy.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said during his annual state of the union address on Tuesday that he has no immediate plans to leave his position. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie isn't going anywhere.

The 60-year-old Winnipeg native has held the job since 2017 and said Tuesday he has no immediate plans to step away.

"I feel like we're on the right track, there's a lot of reasons to be thrilled about the results we've had," Ambrosie told reporters during his annual state of the league address. "I also think those results can be built upon and I still have a lot of energy and passion.

"Ultimately, that decision will be made by the board of governors and myself ... but for now, I'm just honoured and thrilled to be the commissioner of the CFL. I plan on staying in the job as long as the governors want me to be in it."

Ambrosie succeeded Jeffrey Orridge in July 2017 and is the fourth-longest serving commissioner behind Jake Gaudaur (1968-84), Sydney Halter (1958-66), and Mark Cohon (2007-15). Conventional thinking suggests Ambrosie would look to stay on the job at least through the '26 season when the league's broadcast deals with TSN and the CBS Sports Network expire.

Should Ambrosie successfully secure a CFL expansion franchise in the Maritimes, a 10-team circuit could make the league much more enticing moving forward. It would certainly present a much more positive outlook than what Ambrosie faced in '21 when the league resumed play after the global pandemic forced the cancellation of the previous season.

"I felt like at the beginning of 2022 my own personal level of energy was just really back," Ambrosie said. "Not only to where I was when I started the job in 2017 but I almost felt like it was higher because my level of confidence in where we were going was that much higher.

"At some point it will be time to pass the baton to somebody else. But for now, I'm honoured to be in the position."

In conversation for expansion

A proponent of CFL expansion into the Maritimes, Ambrosie said the time is fast approaching for that to happen but hasn't offered a deadline.

"We've been in a conversation with a highly engaged, highly qualified potential owner in Atlantic Canada," Ambrosie said. "We don't have a conclusion yet.

"But I'm optimistic and realistic that at some point if we can't get it done, then we'd have to thank Atlantic Canadians for hosting us and then say perhaps we'll have to try another time."

For the first time during his CFL tenure, Ambrosie was able to trumpet good news about the Toronto Argonauts, B.C. Lions and Montreal Alouettes. In his previous Grey Cup addresses, he had to speak specifically about issues with one — or all — of the franchises.

Toronto, which posted a CFL-best 16-2 record, had a 41.1 per cent increase in game-day revenue. On Saturday, the franchise drew 26,620 spectators — the largest crowd for an Argos game at BMO Field since moving there in 2016 — for its 38-17 East Division final loss to the Montreal Alouettes.

A football player wraps a towel around his head.
Argonauts wide receiver David Ungerer III sits on the bench after the team's loss to the Alouettes in the East final. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Montreal, which was operated by the CFL this off-season before being sold to Quebec businessman Pierre-Karl Peladeau, is in its first Grey Cup since 2010. The Alouettes won 11 regular-season games, their most since 2012, and experienced a 13.5 per cent increase in game-day revenues.

B.C. continues to thrive under owner Omar Doman. Its game-day revenues increased 12.3 per cent as the Lions (12-6) finished second in the West Division before losing 24-13 last Saturday to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the conference final.

Overall, CFL scoring increased 18 per cent over the '21 season while 60 per cent of games (up from 51 per cent in '21) were decided in the final two minutes. League attendance was up three per cent while its TV ratings increased nine per cent overall but a whopping 34 per cent in the 25-to-54 demographic.

Ambrose said there was a 1.35 million average minute audience for the East Division final while the West Division championship drew 1.12 million.

"Traditionally the West games outperform the East games," Ambrosie said. "That's exciting, that means we're engaging fans in these big markets."

But it wasn't all good news for the CFL.

Unknowns for Elks

In August, the Edmonton Elks and former president/CEO Victor Cui parted ways with former president/CEO Rick LeLacheur returning on an interim basis. The franchise, after an 0-9 start, finished last in the West with a 4-14 record and hasn't reached the CFL playoffs since 2019.

It averaged just over 24,700 spectators per game — which included a season-low crowd of 19,921 for a 38-29 home loss to Winnipeg. This year's attendance is down significantly from 2015 when the franchise averaged a CFL-high 31,517 fans per game.

Next year, Edmonton will close the upper bowl at Commonwealth Stadium, which has a seating capacity for 56,400 fans. There's also rumblings that the Elks, one of three community-owned CFL franchises (Saskatchewan and Winnipeg are the others) could become privately owned.

"Obviously for me, it is very personal, I spent five of my nine seasons there," Ambrosie said. "Clearly that fanbase was very disappointed with their on-field performance and made their displeasure known.

"It's not for me to speculate [on] what direction the Elks might take. Whatever future that will be created for the Elks, those decisions will be made in Edmonton by Edmontonians, by the Elks and their board."

The CFL's new statistics system, created via its partnership with Genius Sports, performed inadequately throughout the season. Although the platform has improved, it remains very clunky, prompting Ambrosie to apologize for the issues.

"Look, I don't think we delivered the way we needed to deliver," Ambrosie said. "But it's such a critical foundation that we needed to create for ourselves that we had to take that chance.

"By the time we get to 2024, I believe we're going to be in a much, much stronger position to meet your expectations."

Men's CFL team executive looks into camera and answers question during television interview.
Cui and the Elks parted ways with the team posting a 4-23 record since he began serving as club president/CEO in January 2022. (Courtesy cfl.ca)

Schedule tinkering

Scheduling was again an issue, with tight turnarounds, an unbalanced format and untimely matchups. Toronto and Winnipeg, last year's Grey Cup finalists, met just once on Sept. 29, after the Argos had clinched first in the East Division.

Subsequently, quarterback Chad Kelly, the East's outstanding player nominee, didn't play in Winnipeg's 31-21 home win.

"There was a lot of pressure we were dealing with financially coming out of COVID but we've decided we're going to go back to the balanced schedule format," Ambrosie said.

Ambrosie added Saturday CFL playoff games are here to stay.

He addressed the league's relationship with the CFL Players' Association, calling it "work in progress." That's also how union executive director Brian Ramsay termed during the CFLPA's availability.

"Our organization is not focusing on achieving a partnership with the CFL," Ramsay said. "But now, we rather centre our time on a healthy, professional working relationship."

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