CFL commissioner wants league to show some ‘good old-fashioned swagger’

This time it wasn’t going to be about the concussion question.

For the last number of years, the CFL commissioner’s address prior to the Grey Cup game has been anything but an update on the state of the league. Since 2016 it’s turned into a lengthy conversation about how the CFL is or isn’t tackling the concussion issue.

But on Friday morning in Calgary, Randy Ambrosie didn’t get a single direct question about concussions. Instead, he trumpeted the CFL’s success over the past season and looked to the future.

“I won’t ever apologize for thinking big for this league. I’ve always thought we’ve punched below our weight. We have to think bigger and we will,” Ambrosie said.

“It is time for some good old-fashioned CFL swagger.”

WATCH | Time for some ‘old-fashioned CFL swagger’:

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie addresses the future of the CFL at its State of the League meetings in Calgary. 2:37

It seems the “elephant-in-the-room” issue, as Ambrosie once called the controversy over concussions, is over for now. It was all sparked during former commissioner Jeffrey Orridge’s address in Toronto during the 2016 Grey Cup. Orridge refused to admit a link between football and degenerative brain disease, saying the CFL’s position “is that there is no conclusive evidence at this point.”

It’s been something reporters zeroed in on the past three years but not anymore. Instead, Ambrosie talked about being bigger and bolder and proud of the CFL. He imagined a league that had 10 teams, Atlantic expansion, with rosters including players from around the world – all part of his CFL 2.0 plan.

This is nothing new. Ambrosie has been wanting the CFL to be fearless in its attempt to be more since he took over. There are four parts to his CFL 2.0 plan: a data-driven collaborative approach between all teams; growing participation across Canada and around the globe; an international strategy to attract global players; and working on ways to improve the relationship with players.

“We want our players to do better, make more money and have a better future for their families,” Ambrosie said. “We need a different way of thinking about our relationship with our players.”

Ambrosie was forthright when talking about the challenges he’s faced in his third full season. The past two years have been somewhat of an easy ride for the former CFL player turned commissioner. Fans, media and teams had been swooning over Ambrosie leading into the 2019 season, pointing to his conversational tone and hands-on approach that seemed to make him perfect for the job.

But the honeymoon is over. This season started ominously with the threat of a player strike over CBA negotiations that was averted just before training camps began. Attendance is declining across the league. Ownership questions in Montreal and B.C. linger. And the Halifax expansion has stalled.

“Sometimes you’re doing the things you want to do, the forward-looking things and it’s so exciting,” Ambrosie said. “And there are times you have to do the stuff you have to do. The blocking and tackling. I think this year was like that second part. Without a doubt it was a different year.”

Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie points to the Grey Cup trophy before giving his annual state of the league address to reporters in Calgary on Friday. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

Ambrosie says he’s optimistic about ownership in Montreal and B.C. and adds he’s equally hopeful about the Halifax Schooners.

“The Halifax stadium vote goes Dec. 10. We are optimistic that stadium will be approved. We will then immediately move into business planning.”

Ambrosie spent a lengthy amount of time talking about attracting new Canadians to the league and how important it was to him.

“We’re about inclusion and the most welcoming nation on the planet. That approach to our football ecosystem will pay handsome dividends in the years ahead,” Ambrosie said. “There is research that shows new Canadians have a strong desire to feel more Canadian. This is Canada. What’s happening in Calgary this week is Canada. This league stands for everything that’s good about this country.”

Must get into all communities

Ambrosie said the league has to be more aggressive about getting into new communities, that it can’t just be about advertising games and handing out flyers. He said the league needs to get their alumni and current players into the communities, meeting people and telling them about the league’s history and appeal.

“Reaching into those communities is going to take an army of people,” Ambrosie said.

Ambrosie said part of growing the game and attracting new fans also needs to happen through getting more children to play the game of football. He pointed to the league’s Try Football campaign, which he said has sent out 11,000 footballs to kids across Canada.

“We need to get more kids playing the game,” Ambrosie said. “It’s the game that every kid can play. Every kid can find a home on a football team.”

But more than anything Ambrosie is tired of people thinking the CFL is a second-class league that doesn’t attract and keep the best talent. Those days are over, he said.