New commish Ambrosie plans team-by-team approach to identify problems

Randy Ambrosie ticks a lot of boxes as the incoming commissioner of the Canadian Football League.

He’s a Canadian who understands the nuances of the CFL. He’s a former player and a successful businessman.

But Ambrosie is not a magician armed with a quick-fix cure for the league’s biggest problem at the moment: reviving a sagging fanbase in the country’s biggest market. He thinks a “brick by brick” approach to improving the state of the Toronto Argonauts is the way to go.

“It’s just competitive, I think that’s the biggest issue,” Ambrosie said. “It’s just a very crowded space. You’ve got a very successful hockey franchise, a very successful basketball franchise, a very successful baseball franchise. It’s crowded here. But it’s also the biggest market in the country with the millions of people that live around Lake Ontario.

“There’s room for those three franchises and there is room for a fantastically successful Canadian Football League franchise here in Toronto as well.”

The Argonauts are a cornerstone franchise for the league but their attendance woes have become chronic.

Last year’s move from the cavernous Rogers Centre to the more comfortable BMO Field did not fix the problem. Toronto is averaging 12,401 fans a game so far this season, down from an unimpressive 16,168 last season.

Ambrosie said the Argonauts have a strong ownership group (Larry Tanenbaum and Bell Canada) that is committed to the future, and will take a steady approach to get there.

“The carpenter’s axiom of measuring twice and cutting once,” he said Wednesday after his formal introduction at a downtown news conference.

The 54-year-old Winnipeg native was a finalist for the commissioner position in 2015 but the job instead went to Jeffrey Orridge, who stepped down last month. Board chairman Jim Lawson had been serving as interim commissioner since Orridge’s departure.

Ambrosie, who becomes the 14th commissioner in league history, plans to take a team-by-team approach to identifying problems the league can help solve.

In addition to the Argonauts’ situation, player safety and the Calgary Stampeders’ aging stadium are other items on his agenda. And his business acumen will be needed to try to figure out how best to tap into a younger generation with more sporting options than ever before.

First up though, Ambrosie plans to meet with the teams and then build a strategy.

“A lot of listening, I really am passionate about that,” he said. “That’s been my operating model in the corporate world. Start with questions, build a depth of knowledge.”

Ambrosie played nine CFL seasons as an offensive lineman with Calgary, Toronto and Edmonton, winning a Grey Cup in his final season with the Eskimos in 1993. He also served two years as secretary of the CFL Players’ Association.

He didn’t delve too deeply into the lingering issue of concussions in football but Ambrosie did express he was “deeply committed” to player safety.

“It boils down to doing everything we can do to work with the players to make the game as safe as possible,” he said.

After retiring from the gridiron, Ambrosie worked in sales and marketing and later held presidential positions at investment companies AGF Funds Inc., Accretive 360 Inc., and MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier.

“He’s both a sales executive and a finance executive,” said Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young. “We need leadership in our CFL office who is thinking very big picture about the future of our league. Finance guys think that way.”

Ambrosie, a former No. 2 overall draft pick and a University of Manitoba product, also wants to help build the game by telling the players’ stories.

“I want to personally take that challenge of telling those stories to Canadian fans – young and old – about just how remarkable these men are that play in the Canadian Football League,” he said.

“Inch by inch, mile by mile, I think we’ll win the battle for their hearts and minds because the game is too great to ignore.”

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