State of CFL: Randy Ambrosie on Mexico, Halifax, realignment and more

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EDMONTON – After years of debate, the CFL is finally promising to move its schedule up a week.

It’s a start.

In an effort to attract more spectators and enjoy better weather for more of the season, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced the move in his annual state of the league address Friday morning.

“We already have an agreement to move the Grey Cup game in 2020 up one week earlier,” said the second-year CFL boss, who has been pushed by many to bump the schedule up as much as a month.

“It’s trying to move more of our games into the warmer part of our seasons. We thought a week made sense.”

Sure does.

The forecast for Sunday’s Grey Cup game between the Calgary Stampeders and Ottawa Redblacks at Commonwealth Stadium calls for sunshine and temperatures hovering around the freezing mark.

Given how frosty it could have been in western Canada in late November, the players feel like they’re getting off easy. This time.

Warmer temperatures not only attract bigger crowds but also promote more entertaining football.

For decades, a three-down league built predominantly around the passing game is forced to revert more to a less-entertaining run game when temperatures plunge.

In those cases, weather becomes one of the biggest factors in the outcome of games, including last year’s Grey Cup in Ottawa where the game was played in a snow storm that ultimately prompted a late Stampeders fumble that cost them the game.

Purists believe it makes for some wonderful Canadiana when the game is framed by snowfall. Sure does.

However, the move has been afoot for a while to make the CFL playoffs more palatable for those hoping to attend games, especially in the west.

Next year’s schedule, which will culminate with the championship game in Calgary, will be unaffected by the schedule change.

Ambrosie said he asked 2020 Grey Cup applicants in Montreal, Regina and Hamilton to submit their bid dates for a week earlier.

Here are some of the other issues Ambrosie addressed:

MEXICO

Ambrosie called up Oscar Perez from Mexico’s Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional (LFA) with whom he signed a letter of intent to work together on several projects, including the potential for CFL games in Mexico as early as 2020.

As part of a vision he calls CFL 2.0, Ambrosie is keen on expanding the CFL’s footprint globally, by way of attracting foreign players to Canada, seeking TV deals, exposure and other opportunities outside Canada.

He also sees it as a place where young Canadians unable to make the jump to the CFL out of university can bridge that gap by potentially playing in the LFA.

“There are so many possibilities, including possible Spanish language CFL broadcasts in Mexico, a Spanish version of the CFL’s popular Football Frenzy video game and merchandise agreements,” said Ambrosie, who also said the plan would include a CFL scouting combine in Mexico City this winter for LFA players.

“Someday, LFA teams may be aligned with CFL counterparts. But we have a lot to work out and learn first. This is a wonderful opportunity to develop a blueprint we can use to also develop positive ties with more of the leagues in the more than 30 other countries that play gridiron football.”

Sunday’s Grey Cup will now air in Spanish on ESPN3 in Mexico, with former CFLer Frank Beltre providing colour commentary.

“How great would it be if we could send young men from Canada to another country where they can get a world class experience playing football somewhere and come back to Canada bigger and stronger and ready to be stars in the CFL?” said Ambrosie, who has also spoken to football folks in Germany, France, Finland and Austria, amongst other potential partners.

“You could call this good supply chain management. We also want to see if we can attract talent to our college and junior teams – let’s internationalize that part of our game too because ultimately a rising tide raises all boats.”

He suggested perhaps a foreign league would be a good breeding ground for Canadian quarterbacks to keep developing.

HALIFAX

Late Friday afternoon The Maritime Football Partnership group is expected to announce the name of the team it hopes to bring to Halifax down the road.

Everything still hinges on the building of a stadium, but support has been strong as more than 5,000 people plunked down $50 deposits for season tickets.

With that, they were allowed to suggest names for a contest that will produce a winner likely to be Schooners.

“For many of us, that’s been a dream now for decades, the idea of this truly coast-to-coast Canadian Football League,” he said.

“We’ve got this amazing group: Anthony LeBlanc, Gary Drummond and Bruce Bowser. And we’re totally committed to their efforts to get that 10th team. There’s a great process in place. There’s actually a document that we signed and agreed to that lays out all the steps that – that it would take to get to it, but ultimately, the big hurdle is the stadium.”

DIVISIONAL REALIGNMENT?

Ambrosie said that while the league has long enjoyed the tradition of its East versus West format for the Grey Cup, he’s open to discussing the possibility of simply having one, nine-team league, without divisions.

“I think we have to have that discussion with our fans and teams this winter,” said Ambrosie.

“We’re always torn between these two paradigms.

“I remember as a kid those Grey Cup pool tickets you get your score for the East team and the score for the West team. I also think when, not if, our 10th franchise lands in Halifax the idea of two, five-team conferences is very compelling, with an unbalanced schedule, creating more intense competition within each conference.

“Having two balanced conferences would be very cool in that way. But I think it would be better to get this team before we make that decision.”

CONCUSSIONS/LAWSUIT

The league is still facing a $200 million class action lawsuit from former players surrounding concussions, limiting Ambrosie’s ability to discuss the issue.

He said he is still trying to learn more about the science behind concussions, while admitting players’ mental and physical health are forefront issues.

“We are in discussions with the plaintiffs in this class action suit, and in the case of the NHL and the NFL, that process took time to reach the outcome they’ve achieved,” he said.

“We would like to similarly reach a successful conclusion. No one would like this thing lingering around in perpetuity.”

CBA TALKS

The league needs a new deal with the players, which has many of the game’s top names’ futures in limbo.

Ambrosie tried to highlight how well they’ve been working together of late.

“Just last year, the changing to a non-padded practices format and going to a 21-week schedule was done in a collaboration with the players and we’ve seen in-practice injuries go down by 35 per cent over the past 16 months. We’ve seen the number of player games lost due to injuries go down by 10 per cent since we made that change. And we did that together.

“I’m optimistic. I really am. I think we can sit down with the players shortly after the season ends, lay out a path to put in place a deal that’s fair for both sides. I’m absolutely confident that we’re going to get to a solution and get back to playing football at the start of the 2019 season.”

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