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March 1, 2019

Randy’s Road Trip stops in Winnipeg

Randy Ambrosie holds a football as he speaks during a press conference in Toronto, Wednesday July 5, 2017. The CFL says Ambrosie will serve as the 14th commissioner in league history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Randy Ambrosie’s vision of a global Canadian Football League – his CFL 2.0 playbook – has its genesis in a story from almost 34 years ago.

Ambrosie, a Winnipeg product who played his college ball at the University of Manitoba, was a first-round pick in the 1985 CFL Draft, having his name called out second overall by the Calgary Stampeders.

Not long after he got the traditional ‘Welcome to the Stamps’ greeting from then-Calgary GM Earl Lunsford.

And five hours after that…

“I got a call from the ticket office that they were doing a ‘Save Our Stamps’ campaign and they wanted to know if I would buy a season ticket,” recalled the CFL commissioner on Friday during his Winnipeg stop in his cross-Canada ‘Randy’s Road Trip.’

“Seriously, you can’t make this up. How about that on your draft day in your moment of glory? I could go on. I could tell you that in my rookie season in 1985 we went to play the Montreal Concorde and we played in front of a crowd that had more people in yellow security jackets at the ‘Big O’ than they did fans in the stands and then Montreal collapsed.”

His point here, big picture, is this: the CFL has been treading water for decades in some markets, back before his days as a player and currently in his role as commish. Yet, if nothing else, this league has proven time and time again it has an enduring resiliency that has allowed it to survive while many have penned its obituary.

But the CFL commissioner’s vision for the league goes beyond that. It’s why his travels have taken him to Mexico, Germany, Austria and Finland.

It’s here, naturally, where many fans have interrupted with this pertinent question: why the focus on CFL 2.0 when there are fires burning now in certain existing markets? And why now when negotiations have yet to officially begin on a new collective bargaining agreement when the current pact expires in May?

“Well, we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Ambrosie explained. “First of all, I want the players to do their preparations (for collective bargaining) and we have preparations to do, too. But my job is not to sit at my desk waiting for the phone to ring. My job is to create opportunities for this league to be more successful.

“We talk to the PA quite regularly. We can walk and chew gum. People say, ‘Randy, why aren’t you staying home and focusing on fixing Toronto?’ I say, ‘This is fixing Toronto.’ We are only going to get people who are not CFL fans to be CFL fans in a world of big sports if we change the fundamental profile of who we are. We have to re-cast ourselves in a different way. We can’t be this small, loveable Canadian Football League. We have to think bigger. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

“We have a chance to be a big Canadian Football League at the epicentre of the international football-playing world bringing great players here, sending great players around the world. We will no longer define our love of great Canadian football players narrowly by how many play in the CFL, but broadly by how many are playing in the football-playing world in total.”

Ambrosie, in a thought that dates back to his playing days, insists the CFL hasn’t reached its full potential as a professional sports league. He believes now more than ever the league must think big to do more than just survive, but to thrive.

“I was here for my visit back in 2017 and one of the questions I was asked was whether I thought I could stabilize the CFL,” Ambrosie said. “And I said, ‘No.’ But I added that I wasn’t at all interested in stabilizing the CFL. That’s like falling off a ship and treading water until the sharks come and get you. What I prefer to do is to see that island in the distance and swim towards a better outcome. I’m not certain I’m going to get there, but treading water and waiting until the end is not a good thing. I want to dramatically grow and make this league stronger.”

Ambrosie said his plan is to double league revenues within the next six or seven years, to over $400 million. And before you roll your eyes at this, he provided some numbers to contemplate that lend credence to his idea of growing the CFL brand outside of our borders:

  • There are five million football fans in France and now 100 kids playing football in CGEP in Quebec, with another eight players from Europe playing U football in the province.
  • There are three times the number of kids playing tackle football in Mexico right now than currently registered in Canada.
  • Across Europe there are 32 leagues playing American football in 30 countries.
  • The CFL, hoping to capitalize on some of that, expects to announce a deal with a Mexican broadcaster soon – and possibly some European agreements, too – and is hoping to play at least one international game per season.

 

“In some ways, part of the problem is we drive this league with eyes on the ‘check engine’ light,” Ambrosie said. “It’s far more productive, I would say, to have your eyes focused on what’s out there in front of the windshield. It’s about where you want to go and what you want to be. There will always be problems. That’s life. The most successful businesses in the world, some of which I have worked for, have problems. But I can’t imagine we can take this where we want to take it unless we look out on the horizon and figure out where to go.”