With Labour Day action in the books, Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie tackled a handful of topics in a Q and A with Postmedia writer Dan Barnes. The content has been edited for brevity.
Q: Average attendance has finally cracked the 23,000 barrier per game. Is it a function of people having too much else to do in the summer, and how concerned were you when the average was around 21,000?
A: Quite honestly this is a topic we’re discussing almost daily and not just through the lens of the CFL, but we’re talking to other leagues and many leagues are experiencing a similar phenomenon. People have a lot of choice these days. I’ll tell you what was incredibly gratifying was to see how much excitement there was in the three stadiums this Labour Day weekend. I was in Hamilton and I would give the Ticats an A-plus for the game day experience. They had so many cool things going on and the fans were completely engaged. It’s a work in progress and we’re going to have to continue to push to create that total experience. Good football, yes, but a lot of other things will go into how a fan will decide to join us in a stadium.
Q: Do you target millennials or also focus on families because you need to grow an audience for the next 20 years too?
A: We are a remarkably affordable sport for fans to enjoy, and we want to get the families to be part of our league because that’s the long-term future. And I saw so many kids at the stadium having a ball. I’d say that strategy is in place and working. The millennials, they’re such an interesting demographic. In Hamilton, it was a sold-out stadium but we saw throughout the game a lot of empty seats. If you looked into the area between the two levels, it was just jam-packed. People were standing, there are all kinds of bars back there. It continues this theme that our stadiums are becoming pseudo-night clubs. That generation of fans is not so inclined to sit in a seat. They’re definitely enjoying the game experience but on their own terms.
Q: It’s been pretty quiet on the CFL 2.0 front. There was a TV deal announced in Mexico and there are supposed to be streaming deals in Mexico and Europe. What else should fans expect?
A: We’ve spent a lot of time over the last two months working with all the federations on our strategy for how we do scouting and combines this off season. We’re going to do individual combines in a lot of countries, including Mexico and across Europe. Out of those combines there will be invitations extended to the best of the best to come to Toronto for our big combine. … We kind of did last year on the back of an envelope. We wanted to get some momentum so we took a very quick decision to invite players from around the world. We now have a much better plan of attack for going into the 2020 football season. … We’re going to be inviting all our global partners to come to Grey Cup this year and there will be some announcements made when we bring that group together. We’re launching an International House at Grey Cup 2019. It’s going to be a big step forward to acknowledge that we’re going to be the big global football league and we’re going to make sure all our international partners are part of our Grey Cup festivities. … We won’t be making a formal announcement but we’re in great discussions with the Japanese. We’ve had them here. There’s a lot of progress being made on that relationship.
Q: I have been told there is an agreement in place to have two Canadian players on each Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional team in Mexico for the 2020 season. How is that working out?
A: We’re doing really well. The partners and friends at the LFA have been tremendous in acknowledging it as an important part of this agreement. I can also tell you there is a very good chance we’re going to have roster spots in Germany this coming year for Canadian players. Those two stand out. And we had that very same conversation with our friends in Japan, about an opportunity to have players there. My personal goal is, I’d like to see within the next three years, a minimum of 200 jobs for Canadian players around the world. So if you’re drafted by a CFL team and you don’t make it on your first attempt, you could potentially go back to university for your fifth year, or if you’ve exhausted your eligibility, you go play a season or two somewhere else in the world.
Q: Are you ready to schedule a CFL regular season game in Mexico?
A: Well, that’s on the agenda. We’re going to be having a follow-up discussion with the LFA in the next few weeks. That is definitely on the radar and something I’d like to see happen, a game in Mexico in 2020. A regular season game I think would be a tremendous next step for the CFL. And frankly, I’d like to see if we can advance this one step further, and talk to our friends in Europe and see if we might end up having a game in Europe as well.
Q: Things have gone pretty quiet on the ownership front in Montreal, but there is obviously work to do there. What can you tell me?
A: One of the big decisions we made is we decided it would be better if all of this was done quietly. I’m happy to report there has been tremendous activity on that file. We are working now with three groups involved in the process at various stages. Conversations are remarkably positive and we feel very good about the direction we’re heading in Montreal. Obviously what’s happened with the football team is very positive and you’re starting to see those great Alouettes fans come back to the stadium. It’s given us a little bit of a lift. … We’re expecting a positive outcome before Grey Cup.
Q: Touchdown Atlantic looked to be a success. The game was spectacular, the crowd was large. If the Schooners decide to play a season or two in Moncton, are you convinced that’s a safe place for them?
A: I think so. I’ll tell you what we saw there; a tremendous amount of football tourism. I talk to Canadians from Vancouver to Montreal and I’m always told the same thing: ‘The East Coast is on my list, it would be great to go watch a football game and then take a vacation.’ We saw that in real life terms. So I think there will be a lot of fan support for a team in Moncton from outside the Moncton area. But what was very cool was seeing how many people came from Halifax and Moncton and the overall Atlantic region. And that’s without them having a dog in the fight. They were coming just for the experience of football.
Q: The Alliance of American Football didn’t present much of a challenge for the CFL, but the XFL is on tap for 2020 and appears to have more money and momentum. Are you more concerned about the XFL’s potential impact?
A: First of all, you should never ignore competition. So we are watching. And let’s not disrespect what they’re trying to do. But at the same time our future will be written by the CFL, by our Board of Governors and our leaders, and we need to be relentlessly focused on our plan. We’re no longer taking a back seat to anyone. It’s a lot of fun in the front seat. You get a good view and you’re a little more in control. That’s the story. Don’t ignore what they’re doing, but let’s be focused on our future.
Week 13 CFL picks
B.C. (1-9) at Montreal (5-4)
Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET
The key to this one should be found along the line of scrimmage, as the Alouettes rarely sack the opposing QB and the Lions rarely protect theirs well enough to move the chains. Both teams are coming off bye weeks. Montreal used the time to sign receiver Chris Mathews, while B.C. replaced O line coach Bryan Chiu with Kelly Bates. Hard to say which one ought to be the more impactful move. We’ll go with the favoured Alouettes by three.
Toronto (1-9) at Ottawa (3-7)
Saturday at 1 p.m. ET
Poor quarterbacking has plagued both teams, but McLeod Bethel-Thompson has taken charge for the Argos lately and the offence has shown strength early in games. The Redblacks are in a 1-7 death spiral, and have given the start to Jonathan Jennings, who threw three picks in his first two appearances, none in his last two. Oddsmakers like the home team by a little, but let’s call this Battle of Ontario an upset. Toronto by five.
Saskatchewan (7-3) at Winnipeg (8-3)
Saturday at 4 p.m. ET
The Riders have won six straight and are 7-1 since opening the season with a pair of losses, so they have plenty of momentum and a QB who continues to do just enough right. The Bombers will line up again without Matt Nichols and Andrew Harris, and betting is their offence suffers just as badly as it did last week from those absences. Can they win one on defence? They almost did in Regina. Bombers by four.
Calgary (6-4) at Edmonton (6-5)
Saturday at 7 p.m. ET
The return of QB Bo Levi Mitchell injected Calgary with confidence, which is well placed since his winning percentage as a starter is now .816. Ridiculous. He makes the offence tick and takes the heat off a defence that is way better than anyone predicted they would be after losing a ton of starters in the offseason. The Eskimos, meanwhile, can’t score against the CFL’s elite. Esks are slim faves, but this looks like the Stampeders by seven.
Postmedia record: 32-14
Dan Barnes: 26-13
Tim Baines: 6-1
Week 13 quote and numbers
“The frustrating thing for me is when we face adversity in the game, we seem to be taking a standing eight count for 24 seconds. When you get punched in the mouth, don’t check for blood. Punch back.” – B.C. Lions GM Ed Hervey
Lucky Whitehead’s team-leading receiving yardage for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who attempt a league-low 27 passes per game. He’s 23 rd in CFL receiving yardage.
Bralon Addison’s league-leading yards after the catch for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He has 66 receptions for 740 total yards, good for sixth place in the CFL.
Combined interceptions by Calgary’s Tre Roberson (six), DaShaun Amos (three) and Robertson Daniel (three). Their total is more than each of Ottawa, Toronto, B.C., Saskatchewan, Montreal and Edmonton, and equals that of Hamilton.
Second quarter points scored by all teams through 46 games. It’s by far the highest-scoring quarter, followed by fourth (597), first (505) and third (491).
Week 13 CFL rankings
1. Hamilton (2)
Hard to argue with 9-2, though the Ticats will argue with almost anybody. They’re a feisty, outspoken lot, who seem to think the refs are out to get them. They’d have an argument after the Labour Day win over Toronto that saw them lose two defensive starters to ejections. But the chips on their shoulders aren’t hindering performance.
2. Saskatchewan (3)
The Riders took down the hobbled Bombers at the Mosaic Madhouse last week, and will be harder-pressed to do it again at IG Field in the Banjo Bowl. But they have a potent blend of aggressive, ball-hawking, quarterback-hunting defence and a QB who rarely puts the ball in a bad spot.
3. Winnipeg (1)
Yes, the mighty have finally fallen. The Bombers’ offence will go one more game without suspended running back Andrew Harris and injured QB Matt Nichols. His replacement Chris Streveler can run a ground game, but his air show needs work. And the defence apparently has to make one more play.
4. Calgary (6)
QB Bo Levi Mitchell came back with a bang in a win over Edmonton, receiver Reggie Begelton is becoming a force, they found another running back, the defence is growing a backbone, and the Stamps are looking far more like the perennial contender they have been for so many years.
5. Montreal (5)
The Als used the bye week to add Chris Matthews to a receiving corps that has been helping QB Vernon Adams Jr. turn the ship around. He can’t hurt their production.
6. Edmonton (4)
In yet another game without a TD, the Esks lost meekly to Calgary in the Labour Day Classic. You get the feeling the head coach would like nothing better than to scream at the offensive co-ordinator on live TV. But that would be awkward.
7. Ottawa (7)
The Redblacks are on the wrong side of the crossover math and need a home victory over Toronto on Saturday to maintain even a sliver of hope for a post-season berth. They have handed the ball to Jonathon Jennings, who had better do something productive with it this time.
8. Toronto (8)
QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson has spread the ball around to almost everybody but the gutsy kid who GM Jim Popp signed to a one-day contract, and it hasn’t been enough to hang with anybody through a full 60 minutes. Running game? What running game? They still don’t have a rushing TD. Or any hope for the playoffs.
9. B.C. (9)
The Lions fired their offensive line coach Bryan Chiu during the bye week, and that’s a good place to start. The over/under on dismissals for the rest of the season, which will end without a playoff berth, will obviously fluctuate, depending on wins and losses.
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