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February 12, 2018

Cross-Canada Tour | Randy Ambrosie

Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie has been all ears during his eight months on the job. And, depending on a man’s level of patience, that can be both a blessing and a curse.

Ambrosie, the Winnipeg and University of Manitoba product, was in good ol’ hometown on Monday as part of his Cross-Canada Tour that will take him from coast-to-coast. It’s an effort from the commissioner to be as transparent as possible with fans and corporate types, as his town-hall-type approach opens the floor to any and all questions.

At the same time, the commissioner has been in the spotlight for other reasons of late, as Toronto Argonaut players James Wilder, Jr. and Victor Butler have both criticized the league for not allowing them to exit their contracts early to pursue NFL opportunities – as had been the case under previous collective bargaining agreements.

Ambrosie spoke on three separate occasions on Monday – first to corporate types at a luncheon, followed by an address to Bomber staff and then a session with season ticket members in the evening – and stressed his desire to make the CFL part of the ‘national conversation 12 months of the year’ while repeating his vow to grow the business.

He has been busy since taking office last July, but also since the CFL season ended in November. He’s visited with a number of professional sports leagues to see how they operate and wants the CFL to be more of a partner to its nine member teams to help increase ticket sales and share best business practices.

“We are taking seriously the goal we accept to grow our game,” said Ambrosie. “I’ve been around this league my entire life. But I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential. We’ve done well for decades now with 105 Grey Cups. But I believe – and my partners believe – we can be bigger and stronger than we are.”

Here are Ambrosie’s thoughts from Monday on some of the current hot-button topics:

A 10th TEAM UPDATE

Ambrosie will wrap up his 10-stop cross-Canada tour next week in Halifax, for decades rumoured as the ideal spot for an expansion franchise. That visit is not by coincidence, as the league has been actively involved in talks with a new ownership group and with city officials in the Nova Scotia capital.

“The big question is ultimately going to be a stadium,” said Ambrosie. “John Ruddy, who is the lead director of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group – the owners of the REDBLACKS – went to Halifax with me to visit with Mayor Savage and town council. John, in about 10 minutes, was explaining how they organized the stadium project and the revitalization and rebuilding of Landsdowne Park. After we were done, several council members actually stood up and said they had been largely opposed to the stadium development, but after listening to John the were in favour of it.”

Ambrosie repeated the analogy he trotted out last year that adding a 10th team on the East Coast is akin to the completion of the national railway.

“I don’t think we can be a complete Canadian Football League until we lay that last stretch of track that goes all the way to the East Coast and includes our friends and neighbours in the Maritimes,” he said. “From this point going forward, we’re going to treat the Maritimes like they’ve got a team… everything we do, every time we think about football, every time we think about football fans, we’re going to think about the Maritimes. We want them to know they belong to the Canadian Football League just as much as any other region in the country.

“Wouldn’t it be great one day to wake up to 10 teams, two divisions of five east and west? We’re going to work as hard as we can and hopefully one day before too long we’ll all be celebrating that 10th franchise in Canada.”

JOHNNY FOOTBALL

Ambrosie was also asked to comment on Johnny Manziel’s appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America Wednesday morning and his revelation he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a year ago.

“I didn’t see him on Good Morning America, but I’ve become aware of his comments. We know that as a society, people talking about their mental health struggles is a good thing. Talking about them, you have to respect someone who has the courage to say I’ve had a problem. I’m happy for him that he’s aware of his own challenge and has gone public with his challenge.

“As for what happens with Johnny, I’m going to leave that up to him and Hamilton to work out. This is definitely a team area, not a league area.”

THE RETURN OF THE XFL

“Somebody suggested I just wrestle Vince McMahon,” said Ambrosie. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, although I did look up his stats and I think under the right conditions and with Wade’s help, we might have a chance.

“They had one season, we’re going to have our 106th Grey Cup this coming year. So while we will always keep an eye on what they’re doing, we need to focus on our own game. We need to focus on growing a bigger, stronger, more robust Canadian Football League.”

THE POSSIBILITY OF MOVING THE SEASON UP

A topic that is gaining momentum is the discussion of moving up the start of the CFL season, leading to the Grey Cup being played in late October/early November and not the last Sunday in November.

Ambrosie asked for a show of hands among fans at a corporate luncheon Monday, and all but one fan voted in favour of moving the season up three weeks for an earlier start date.

“We’ve been asking this question across the country. You won’t be surprised that in Vancouver it was about 60-40 (in favour of moving up), but they play inside a dome. Calgary was almost 95 percent, Regina was 95 percent as well. Montreal was about 50-50, Toronto was about 50-50 and Ottawa was 75-25, but to be fair, Ottawa had just come off that magical Grey Cup experience (Ambrosie has not yet visited Edmonton or Hamilton). But it’s not always quite so magical. You all know here, some of those games where it’s snowing a little bit or snowing a lot, it’s a little less friendly than the temperatures there.

“We want to keep having the conversation. We would never go any further without having a conversation with TSN to get their thoughts on it. This is one of those times where you go back to the carpenter’s axiom about measuring twice, cutting once.”

Ambrosie said the topic did come up at the recent meeting with general managers about accommodating an earlier start, including moving up the CFL Draft.

“Right now, I think it’s important to have a national conversation about moving our season up,” said Ambrosie, before cracking, “I don’t want to be unfair to the NHL and their playoffs and steal all their fans as we start the greatest sport in the world with starting our league early.

“It’s a serious question. We have to ask some of the new fans we want to attract and is there a possibility of having a bigger fan base if we move it early by making the weather less of an issue as it can sometimes be in our league in November.”