Commissioner Ambrosie still bullish on potential financial benefits of CFL 2.0

REGINA — It has yet to bear financial fruit but Randy Ambrosie remains bullish on the potential of his CFL 2.0 initiative.

Ambrosie unveiled his program to grow Canadian football on a global scale four years ago but the COVID-19 pandemic effectively pushed it to the back burner. On Friday, Ambrosie said during his annual state of the league address that while CFL 2.0 hasn't generated "substantial revenue" to date, it's showing signs of doing so.

"I would say, 'No,' to substantial revenue," Ambrosie said during a wide-ranging 55-minute address. "But has the program started to show some signs of progress? I think the answer is, 'Yes.'

"I think when we'll start to see global revenue kick in is when we get more and more global players who're making more significant contributions. We've had a few that have done incredibly well. We'll continue to have global players in the CFL as long as we have this current CBA. We're committed."

This spring, the CFL and CFL Players' Association ratified a seven-year deal following just the second strike in league history.

Within his first two years on the job, growing Canadian football internationally was a priority for Ambrosie. In 2018, he announced a partnership with Mexico's Liga de Futbol Americano that would potentially see CFL games being played in Mexico City and the league benefiting financially from a potential television agreement.

Shortly afterwards, CFL 2.0 followed. Ambrosie travelled the world securing partnerships with 10 other international football associations, with plans to hold global combines in Europe, Mexico and Japan. However, Ambrosie hasn't been able to announce any global TV deals.

But with the CFL's broadcast agreement with TSN expiring in 2026, Ambrosie suggested that could be when the league is in position to broaden its television reach.

"It was never going to be the flip of a switch but we're looking towards our media rights that expire at the end of 2026," Ambrosie said. "We're all focused on how do we make sure we're poised to harness the biggest global media rights opportunity when our current deal with TSN expires?

"It's all part of a patchwork quilt of things we're doing that are trying to set us up for long-term success. Not everything is going to yield an immediate result but I think this is one area where we've seen some progress."

Where Ambrosie feels the CFL could see a more immediate payback is in its TV deal with ESPN, which expires following the Grey Cup. Previous agreements have been more about American exposure for the league than revenue (this one was reportedly worth about $200,000 annually).

"The conversations we've been having have been very positive," Ambrosie said. "I think we'll have a substantially improved economic situation in our U.S. media rights when we're done.

The CFL's deal with TSN is reportedly worth $50 million annually. Ambrosie said any deal with ESPN will expire in unison with the one with TSN, presumably giving the league a clean slate to negotiate.

"We both agree, the best thing we can do for the future of TSN and for the future of the CFL is drive new initiatives, create new successes and grow and build our fan base," Ambrosie said. "That's why TSN is a big supporter of our marketable fan strategy because they know the more fans we gather, the more eyeballs we can put on our product."

But the '22 season was again one of good and bad for the CFL. Some of the good included:

• Ambrose said scoring was up 17 per cent this season (about a touchdown per game). An average of 50.4 points was scored per game, with TD drives and lead changes (up 25 and 17 per cent, respectively) and both two-and-outs and penalties down (12 per cent and four per cent, respectively).

• New CBA that not only gives the CFL extended labour peace but an opportunity for the two sides to work on their partnership moving forward.

• A 16 per cent decrease in injuries with no repeat concussions.

• Adoption of mental health screening processes by each team following training camp.

• The resurgence of the B.C. Lions under new owner Amar Doman. On the field, quarterback Nathan Rourke — the CFL's top Canadian — helped the club post a 12-6 record and finish second in the West Division. Over 30,000 fans watched the Lions down Calgary 30-16 in the conference semifinal at B.C. Place Stadium. Ambrosie stated the franchise's group ticket sales, season-ticket sales and single-game ticket sales increased 60 per cent, 73 per cent and 120 per cent, respectively.

But there were certainly negatives. They included:

• Garrett Marino. The Saskatchewan defensive lineman received a four-game suspension — the longest issued for in-game behaviour by the CFL — for a low hit on Jeremiah Masoli and verbal comments about the Ottawa quarterback's heritage. Garrett rejoined the Riders after the ban but was later released by the club and signed with the United States Football League.

• The CFL was forced to apologize after releasing an erroneous list of divisional all-stars. The original list contained voting results that were incorrectly tabulated. Hours later, the league released a second list with corrected revisions.

• Despite increased scoring, CFL attendance averaged just over 21,000 fans leaguewide. That's down from about 22,916 in 2019 and 24,644 in 2017. The Toronto Argonauts averaged 11,875 this season but drew a season-high 21,331 spectators to their 34-27 East Division final win over Montreal at BMO Field.

• Questions regarding the future of the Montreal Alouettes arose in August when minority owner Gary Stern stepped away from the day-to-day operations. The move came two months majority owner Sid Spiegel's death. Upon Stern's announcement, president Mario Cecchini said it was business as usual as representatives of the club's majority shareholder remained committed to the club. On Friday, Ambrosie delivered a similar message, saying he hasn't been told of any plans to sell the club.

• On Thursday, Toronto quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was very critical of the CFL leadership. Speaking with reporters during media day, Bethel-Thompson proposed the league's issues have a lot to do with its leadership.

"We're talking about progress, not perfection," Ambrosie said. "That's not where we are but we are making progress, and that's what we think about each and every day.

"When you're trying to transform something, trying to build something or trying to rebuild something it's hard. But the reward is so fantastic when you work through the challenges and come out the other side bigger, better and stronger. That's what we're working on."

Ambrosie feels the CBA — which includes partial guarantee of CFL contracts and revenue sharing with the players — and progress in the league's biggest markets are big steps in that direction.

"This seven-year deal is transformational," he said. "(The league and players) are learning about how to think about each other not as combatants but as partners and it's going to take time.

"One story we've been focused on is our major markets and I'd say this year we all have something to feel better about. That's not to say everything is roses … there's still work to be done but we made real progress there."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press