Randy Ambrosie takes on daunting to-do list as new CFL commissioner

Sportsnet CFL Insider Justin Dunk joins the show to discuss the introduction of new CFL Commissioner and if he's the right choice for the league moving forward.

TORONTO – In a downtown press conference Wednesday morning in Toronto, the CFL announced Randy Ambrosie as its new commissioner.

It wasn’t a coincidence the 14th commissioner of the storied league was unveiled at the headquarters of Twitter Canada. The league has made an increased digital presence and reach a priority. So much so that they’ve partnered with Twitter to produce a Twitter exclusive weekly show and wrapped its arms around all things daily fantasy.

Attracting millennials is part of the challenge, but that’s true of all content businesses in 2017.

But that’s not solely how Ambrosie will be judged.

Ambrosie’s first question from the assembled media was regarding the health, or lack thereof, of the Toronto Argonauts. The first question that came in via live stream was about concussions, CTE and their link to football.

Those are two things that are top of mind and top of the to-do list that awaits Ambrosie once he unpacks his boxes in the corner suite of the league’s head office. Before his name is even on the door he has to formulate a plan to stave off the death of the oldest sports franchise in North America and fight against the issue that many observers on both sides of the border, like proud Canadian Malcolm Gladwell, will equate to the death of the sport.

The smartest thing the rookie commissioner did was handle both questions like a vet and said a lot without revealing much at all. On the curious case of the Argos, he said “the best solutions are made over time. There isn’t a magic switch to reigniting the passion.”

When pressed on whether or not there was a link to playing football and CTE he said, “I’m not a doctor or a scientist. There are parts of that question that for a lay person would be impossible to answer.”

Ambrosie handled tough questions like a veteran in his press conference. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Which is vastly different from what previous commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said at last year’s Grey Cup in Toronto: “The league’s position is there’s no conclusive evidence at this point.”

That came almost a year after Jeff Miller, the NFL’s health and safety officer, admitted football’s connection to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Ambrosie went on to say, “this is not a contact sport, it is a collision sport, which is one of the reasons that it is appealing to fans.”

Regardless of what his and the CFL’s official stance may be, the question is if it will continue to be appealing to mothers and fathers as an activity for their kids. More importantly, will it still be appealing to athletic young Canadians when the return on investment of that health risk is not millions of dollars like it is for NFL players? Especially when a Canadian football player’s entry-level salary would not be much higher than his university classmates with much less job security and career length.

Continue to keep your workforce safe and interested in your line of work while convincing Torontonians to spend their hard-earned money on your product. That is your challenge if you choose to accept it, Randy Ambrosie. The good news is Ambrosie didn’t need this job and was well aware of these factors when he reportedly was the runner-up to Orridge last time around, and once again when he applied this year.

Ambrosie played for the Argos in 1987 and lives in Oakville, Ont., now, so he should be aware of the challenge ahead. The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Edmonton Eskimos had more fans for their home openers than the Argonauts had for their first two home games combined.

Which is probably why Ambrosie’s opening presser was a stark contrast from Orridge’s. In many ways, Ambrosie is the anti-Orridge. No promises or proclamations made, deflecting most things towards explanations of his past experiences.

Ambrosie grew up in Manitoba and played for Calgary, Toronto and Edmonton. He’s been successful in every business venture he’s taken on including turning around Canada’s oldest investment firm, MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier, before the company was sold in 2016 to Raymond James.

A turnaround of Canada’s oldest football team won’t be that quick. It took Ambrosie nine years to win the Grey Cup and it might take just as long to win back the fickle fans in North America’s fourth-largest city. Ambrosie talked about the commitment from ownership to get things right in Toronto but those words have been said by Tom Wright, Mark Cohon, and Orridge before him.

Ambrosie’s first order of business is a tour of all nine teams and what he’ll find is the CFL is thriving in two-thirds of its markets. The league currently struggles in three: Montreal, British Columbia and Toronto. It’s not a coincidence they are the three markets that also have an MLS team in town. In B.C. and Toronto’s cases, they don’t have first choice of home dates at their stadiums in what is a gate-driven league.

The cupboard is far from bare. The league has lots of momentum. New stadiums in six of its markets, labour peace (for now) with its players and a lucrative broadcasting contract that lasts until 2021.

I take Ambrosie at his word when he says he’ll increase the profile of the players. Something Henry Burris has long been calling for. Ambrosie once worked for the CFLPA and was a player himself, so naturally that would be his preference.

Only time will tell if Ambrosie is able to help turn around the good ship Argonaut in ways many other smart, qualified men pledged to do but ultimately failed at.

Cohon was a great face for the league and his best asset was the ability to sell you the dream and rationalize the nightmare. Orridge was brought in to dream big even though it was next to impossible to get everyone on board on what attaining those big dreams would cost.

Ambrosie is now reminiscing instead of dreaming. His historical reference with the country and the league is his differentiator from his predecessors. Ambrosie said the word “Canada” three times in his opening statements. His task now is to have fans recapture the nostalgia of Exhibition Stadium at BMO Field in a time when new technology allows them to experience the action anywhere in the world with a touch of a button on their smartphone.

Ambrosie is a smart man and I’m inclined to root for him because, like me, he loves the league and is desperate for it to be successful. But those internal and external need to give him some time. It’s a job so big it’s’ not going to happen overnight. Ambrosie is different than his predecessors but he’s not immune to the symptoms they couldn’t cure. Here’s hoping the former offensive lineman can lead the way.

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