Q&A: Commissioner Randy Ambrosie expects ‘better financial outcomes’ if CFL partnered with XFL

Photo courtesy: CFL

Randy Ambrosie can smell what The Rock is cooking and might want in on it.

The CFL commissioner and the XFL announced that the two leagues are in talks to explore the potential for alignment. According to league sources, the discussions are in very early stages.

There are seemingly an endless amount of questions with regards to what could be possible between the CFL and XFL and Ambrosie provided answers to some of them as best he could.

Dunk: Who reached out to who?

Ambrosie: “That question has been asked several times today, I think like most of these things, it starts somehow. Look, the bottom line is we are talking to all the leagues, not just in our sport but in other sports and somewhere along the way we ended up having this conversation with the ownership group at the XFL.

“It started a conversation which was really just explaining what we were trying to do, what they were trying to do. And somewhere in all of that, we ended up reaching a point where we said, ‘We think there’s a lot of common vision, there’s a lot of common DNA.’

“What we really wanted to do today was not have those discussions in the shadows. We wanted to have a more transparent conversation recognizing that our league belongs to the fans, it belongs to all of us, all the stakeholders, the players and everyone, so let’s have a conversation that’s more out in the open.”

Dunk: Speculation is going to run rampant. Are we talking about a merger? A season where the CFL and XFL teams have an interlocking schedule? What are the kinds of possibilities for the future?

Ambrosie: “The best thing about the answer I’m about to give is it’s absolutely the bedrock truth is that what we are talking about is talking about talking. I had a great moment earlier today when Steve Shamie and I got to call the players’ association, and it was good because something we’re really trying to do well is to talk with the players about things. I got to say, ‘Guys, we’re going to talk about talking.’ Rather than bring in a baked cake to the party, we’re just going to talk about building a cake. It felt really good to have that discussion with the PA.

“We are putting no expectations on this other than two highly energized groups that see value in what each other does, and how might we help grow the game of football together and collaborate.”

Dunk: Does it have to do with the financial situation the league is currently in? Not playing in 2020 cost the league millions of dollars. Do you see this as a potential partnership that can benefit the CFL, and even the XFL, financially?

Ambrosie: “We’re not there yet. We’re not putting financial metrics around this, but when you’re talking about sharing each other’s best practices, and talking about our aspirations, at the core of it you’re looking for opportunities to grow the game. If you follow that, the natural extension of growing the game is having better financial outcomes.

“In all of this, yes, there is an expectation that this is going to take us some place better. Exactly where that some place is, we don’t know, but it was a great day to be talking about talking with really good people. And when you’re in the room with them, as we’ve had a chance to be, there’s a tremendous authenticity to who they are. Their respect for us has been obvious, and that’s one of the many reasons why it’s been encouraging.”

Dunk: Have you personally talked to The Rock and exchanged ideas?

Ambrosie: “We’ve had a chance to be on calls together. I say this about their entire group, Dany Garcia, Jeffrey Pollack, Dwayne Johnson, Gerry Cardinale, they’re good people. They smile, they bring their ‘Canadian’ to all of their meetings, and they’ve been a real pleasure to talk to.”

Dunk: Does the CFL need a partnership with the XFL to survive and thrive financially in the future? Or would the league be alright on its own?

Ambrosie: “We’re entering into this conversation because we’re looking to be a bigger, more successful CFL. You don’t know where that is going to go. We’re not doing this out of a sense of desperation, we’re doing this because we see it as an opportunity, and that is the fundamental orientation we’re taking into this.

“We’re not doing this because we have a blind panic — we’re doing this because we feel good about talking with them about collaborating to grow the game of football. Starting on that very positive footing is a really good thing.”

Dunk: Are we going to see the three-down game being played in the XFL? Are we going to see the four-down game being played in the CFL?

Ambrosie: “You’re way ahead of us. Today was a day about talking about talking. And that’s what makes this so cool is that we’ve decided — this is atypical, normally you bake the cake, you ice the cake, you put the candles on the cake, and then you present the cake. This is just talking about do we want to build a cake? And if so, who has got the best ingredients to collaborate. That’s what makes the day so unique and special.”

Dunk: Is it fair to say that the joint announcement from the CFL and the XFL is a litmus test to see how people react and also, if the two leagues are joined, the kind of waves it can make in terms of the media coverage? I’ll give you an example: my buddies that are in their mid-30s who don’t watch the CFL are talking about this announcement. So is it a little bit of a test run in that sense?

Ambrosie: “Not really, it certainly wasn’t designed that way. It may give us insights that we haven’t had previously. It was designed to do exactly as I’m describing it, it’s to open the proverbial kimono and just say, ‘Hey, we’re talking to each other, and we’re going to explore opportunities to grow the game of football and help each other. Where that takes us, we don’t know, but I feel good today. I’m just saying that me as a person acknowledging these incredible stakeholder groups that are part of Canadian football, I get to tell them today that we’re having this discussion. That all on its own is very powerful.”

Dunk: The XFL has central ownership with The Rock at the centre. The CFL has three different structures for their ownership. How would that potentially work going forward? And is central ownership something that the CFL has considered? And did that factor into any of these discussions with the XFL?

Ambrosie: “You’re just laps ahead of us. We haven’t had any of those conversations. Just going back to the standard positioning, today was about talking about talking. There’s lots of stuff that I’m sure we’ll talk about in the days, and weeks, and months to come, but for now it’s just acknowledging that we want to grow the game, shared passion for football, shared desire to create more opportunities for football players, a shared desire to create more engagement amongst our fans, entertainment as a tool to growing the game of football — all of those things are what we’ve been talking about in these early days.”

Dunk: Does this discussion with the CFL and the XFL impact the 2021 season and your attempt to put football back on the field?

Ambrosie: “No. One of the bedrock principles we’re working on today is that we’re going to do everything we can to get back on the field — that is our focus. We want to play a 2021 season, we want to get our players back on the field, we want to get our fans back in the stands. We’re watching the vaccine rollout very carefully, we’re talking with public health officials about health and safety protocols, we’re talking with our players about how we collaborate to be good partners to each other, we’re talking to our corporate partners. So, no — 2021 is an absolute bedrock focus and we’re having this conversation with the ownership group of the XFL about how we can collaborate to grow the game.”

Dunk: So that would be for potential future years, 2022 and beyond?

Ambrosie: “That’s right.”

Dunk: In terms of the proposals with the Canadian levels of government, have those health and safety protocol proposals been presented? And where do you feel you stand at that point?

Ambrosie: “There’s a process that’s been going on in collaboration between the players’ association and the league, and we’ve got our medical experts that are guiding us through that. Look, part of that exercise is you put these plans in front of governments. We’re not doing every province all at once, we’re doing a couple of provinces, we’re learning, we’re getting some feedback. We don’t have infinite resources, so you want to be very systematic, but we feel good about it. Are we there? Have we reached any conclusions? No. But are there reasons to feel optimistic? Yes, and in part because we’re doing it in a collaborative and thoughtful way. We have high expectations that is the approach that’s going to lead us to the greatest success.”

Dunk: How critical would it be for the CFL if the Edmonton Oilers are able to have a limited number of fans in their arena? They formally submitted a proposal to Alberta Health Services. What would that do for the CFL and the attempt to return to play in 2021?

Ambrosie: “Any progress that gets made here in the days ahead on fans starting to return to large gatherings has got to be good news for the world. Ultimately, we’re all watching for those signs and signals that better days are ahead. I’m certainly looking forward to that.”