CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie talks diversity, global ambitions

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

The CFL playoffs and the 106th Grey Cup in Edmonton is around the corner. Reflecting back on the 2018 season to date is a stark reminder that it has been a busy sophomore campaign for CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. The former offensive lineman was never in the spotlight during his playing days, as he preferred to pave a path for his more skilled teammates.

But now the biggest CFL headlines seem to centre around the 14th commissioner of the league.

Most recently Ambrosie took full responsibility and apologized to the board of governors and fans for the CFL’s response to defensive lineman Odell Willis’s helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Zach Collaros. The hit was not penalized until the Riders challenged for an unnecessary roughness penalty. Collaros, who has a history of concussions, wasn’t removed from the game despite being slow to get up and squatting to compose himself.

Collaros remained in the game for two more plays before coming to the sideline after Saskatchewan scored a touchdown and none of the five concussion spotters intervened.

After fining Willis Ambrosie met with him personally to explain his rationale.

But Ambrosie’s jurisdiction has more frequently been required to attend to matters off the field.

In a chat earlier in the year with Sportsnet, Ambrosie was outspoken as the first major sports league commissioner to go on the record and say his league would be willing to explore partnerships with the cannabis industry now that the substance is legal in Canada.

That isn’t the only area Ambrosie is thinking progressively.

The league’s slogan of “diversity is strength” was put in motion by senior vice president of marketing and content Christina Litz as a response to the racism and tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. This year the league expanded on the initiative by honouring 12 trailblazers, past and present, that embody the slogan. The lack of discord between the players and owners on social justice issues is a problem the NFL has that the CFL hasn’t encountered.

“I don’t envy some of the things that came across commissioner Goodell’s desk,” Ambrosie told me recently.

However, the diversity the league is touting hasn’t trickled down to the sidelines, where there are currently no minority head coaches. I pushed Ambrosie on that issue and if a “Rooney Rule” type of solution is in order :

The CFL currently does not have a policy mandating minority candidates be considered for job openings. With at least two head-coaching vacancies (Toronto and B.C.) and with worthy candidates such as Orlando Steinhauer, Devone Claybrooks, Mark Washington and Marcus Brady available, it will be interesting to see what occurs this off-season.

Ambrosie says, “we should talk about everything.” He has spent considerable time talking about his self-proclaimed “CFL 2.0” initiative to take the CFL brand international. The notion has been met with equal parts excitement and skepticism. A comparison was immediately made with the CFL’s failed expansion to the United States in the 1990s. But this time, what Ambrosie is seeking is to build relationships with international football leagues, and hopefully, new revenue streams, as opposed to outright expansion.

“The board of governors have been great. When I took this to Larry Tanenbaum, who has been pitched everything and has been in the biggest meetings in sports, his eyes immediately lit up and was excited by the possibilities. What I laid out based on the research we’ve done made perfect sense to him and he was intrigued to explore it more. Having a board of governors group like that that is really intent on listening and exploring gives me energy.”

Ambrosie explores in further detail what the best-case scenario of CFL 2.0 would look like and how the idea initially came to him in the video feature below:

To those concerned Ambrosie is too focused on bringing football across the Atlantic and losing sight of bringing it to Atlantic Canada, he hears your concerns.

“I concur with those who believe brining football coast-to-coast should be our first and No. 1 priority, and it is. We aren’t talking at this stage about expansion to other parts of the world that would supersede our interest level in serving our fans in Atlantic Canada. But as far as making the league global and strengthening the Canadian nature of our game by visiting all regions of the country, they aren’t mutually exclusive.”

The push to bring a team in the Maritimes is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. The Maritime Football Limited Partnership (MFLP) group consisting of AMJ Campbell Van Lines president Bruce Bowser and former Arizona Coyotes co-owners Anthony LeBlanc and Gary Drummond, is in talks with the CFL to secure an expansion franchise for Halifax for the 2021 season, conditional on a new stadium being built.

The group is planning to hold a press conference Wednesday to provide an update on their project. Ambrosie is expected to be in attendance.

The fan group, The Atlantic Schooners, is planning on being in Edmonton at this year’s Grey Cup to once again to show their support to the league.

Once this season concludes, Ambrosie’s next hurdle will be negotiating a new CBA with the CFLPA, a group he not only used to be a member of, but was also the secretary for. And with a couple of upstart leagues such as the second iteration of the XFL and the Alliance of American football forming just as big name CFL QBs such as Mike Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell, Trevor Harris and Ricky Ray hit free agency, one could argue the players have never had more leverage.

CFL fans: set a Google alert for Randy Ambrosie. Because if his name is in the news, something of importance is going down in Canadian football.

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