As he is prone to do, Randy Ambrosie played the role of eternal optimist, with a dose of reality thrown in for good measure.
During his annual state of the union address in Hamilton on Friday, the CFL commissioner painted a fairly rosy picture of the three-down game leading up to Sunday’s 108th Grey Cup between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats while conceding the challenges brought on by a global pandemic have made it difficult for the league to find its footing at times.
Despite the disappointment of having to cancel the 2020 campaign because it simply didn’t make financial sense to play on without the ability to have fans in the stands, Ambrosie believes that decision has brought the CFL to a better place.
“If you look at it as a cynic, you might say that we didn’t have the same kind of season we normally have,” said Ambrosie. “But if you look at it through the lens of what we’ve all experienced and how much our own lives have changed in these last two years, how things have been so different for us personally, if you can look at it through that lens, then you can say nothing more than this was an amazing triumph and that we owe a debt of players and coaches who just did so much and endured so many challenges.”
That the CFL got through its condensed 14-game regular season under the circumstances and reached championship weekend should be celebrated, there is no doubt about that.
But what direction is the league going?
That’s where the picture gets a bit cloudy.
“Winston Churchill famously said ‘never waste a crisis’ and I’m happy to say we didn’t,” said Ambrosie. “Now I’m not going to tell you we’ve been able to fix everything. I’m not. I’m not going to suggest we don’t have challenges on the horizon, we do. But frankly, we did a lot of the heavy lifting that was long overdue.
“The game is great, but the business has to punch at its weight in order to have a really good league.”
One of those things in the heavy lifting category was resetting the business model to provide a stronger foundation.
There was the initiative and partnership with Genius Sports that Ambrosie and the CFL were happy to trot out.
It looks like a forward-thinking move to go into business with a company focusing on accelerating growth and engagement, both locally and internationally — and with an eye toward sports betting.
This isn’t the first attempt to revolutionize the CFL and it probably won’t be the last.
Whether it works or not or what impact it has remains to be seen.
When pressed about whether or not Genius Sports has made a financial contribution to this partnership, Ambrosie initially deflected before eventually saying the majority of the investment was in technology and service.
Ambrosie used the business example of Apple when looking into the future for the CFL, focusing on the why instead of the what.
“Why is the beginning of a whole other conversation,” said Ambrosie. “What do our fans want from us? We don’t start with the solutions, we start on the principle. What is it that we need to fix? And then we go looking for solutions.”
A revenue0sharing model has been created for the first time in almost 40 years, though what that actually looks like isn’t clear.
The premise of the league only being as strong as the weakest link is very much alive, but you can be sure some of the community-owned teams that are drawing well and turning a profit won’t be overly thrilled with having to prop up some of the struggling franchises.
Horizontal accountability is a great buzzword, but the teams paying the most into revenue sharing are going to want assurances that money is going to the greater good, not just keeping teams afloat — especially if some of those owners have deep pockets.
On that front, Ambrosie was vague when asked if he had a full commitment from all nine member clubs to play in 2022.
“Well, the answer is right now I’ve got nine teams and nine governors and I’ve got a plan for the 2022 season,” said Ambrosie. “I know no reason to expect that we will have anything other but a resounding success in 2022.
“We have got one or two of our teams, as you all know, that we need to do some work on.”
Ambrosie said the CFL remains committed to the Toronto Argonauts franchise and believes the city represents one of the greatest opportunities, though also conceding a great deal of work is required to achieve that goal.
There is also the issue of the CFL having an expiring collective bargaining agreement with the CFLPA.
And as important as it is to have the Grey Cup return after missing out in 2020, neither side can afford a work stoppage of any length in the immediate future.
That only heightens the importance of the upcoming negotiations.
Ambrosie spoke briefly on the flirtation with the XFL, though offered very little in terms of the details on what a potential merger or partnership might have looked like, other than agreeing that “it just didn’t feel like the right time” and they “decided to part company as friends.”
There was talk about how the CFL imposed what were among the strictest Covid protocols in all of sport and how there was only one game disruption, which caused the Edmonton Elks to play a ridiculous three games in seven days because of a Covid-19 outbreak.
Ambrosie provided a confusing answer when a question about Toronto Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was asked, suggesting the COVID rules were not actually changed to allow him to play last Sunday against the Ticats.
Allowing Bethel-Thompson to play under the circumstances was absolutely the right call, but an infraction — though certainly unintentional — took place when he attended a Toronto Raptors game three days before the game.
Saying afterward that because players weren’t in a strict bubble doesn’t mean the rules were changed doesn’t add up, even if it was the doctors that decided a two-day isolation period and three negative COVID tests was enough to provide a green light.
Looking toward 2022, Ambrosie said that part of the vaccination mandate will be decided by government policy and the other part by a discussion with the CFLPA.
Based on what is already in place for leagues like the NHL and NBA, the CFL will need to follow suit and ensure all players and staff are fully vaccinated.
The situation involving Argonauts vice-president of player personnel John Murphy was also discussed, though not in great detail.
This type of behaviour can’t be tolerated and saying this is the type of thing that is dealt with within the family isn’t enough.
Although the league has suspended Murphy, the CFL needs to take further action.
It’s important for the CFL to continue to provide easy access to the fans, but this wasn’t the type of all-access environment that anybody wants.
On the flip side, Ambrosie hit the right notes when recognizing the contributions of CFL legend Angelo Mosca, CFL owners David Braley, Bob Wetenhall and Sid Spiegel, along with Calgary Stampeders executive Ken King after they passed away during the pandemic.
“Angelo always wanted to know what he could do to help the league,” said Ambrosie. “And he wanted to get out and market. He always wanted to get out and talk to fans.”
And that’s where those connections come when trying to find that synergy between the traditional fan and someone just learning about the game.
Folks like Mosca are part of the fabric and appeal of the CFL.
By highlighting the personalities of the players, that’s how you can help move the casual fan into lifelong territory.
Part of the way organizations can do that is by reducing the roster turnover that is often synonymous with pro football, especially in the CFL.
By the end of this hour-plus session with reporters, a common theme was evident.
“We’ve really popped the cork on an opportunity to think differently than perhaps we have in the past,” said Ambrosie. “How do we keep moving our game forward? How do we make our game more entertaining?”
The CFL has rarely been lacking in ideas, it’s the implementation and execution of those ideas that will ultimately determine where this league is heading and whether it can reach new heights.