Football people tired of hearing what’s wrong with CFL game while league’s business management gets free pass

Courtesy: AP/Adrian Wyld

CFL football people are bracing for the league’s commissioner, board of governors and presidents to continue to tell them what’s wrong with the Canadian game in Toronto this week, including further discussion on the number of downs.

For the first time in over two years, since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many of the league’s power players will be in one place for face-to-face meetings. The CFL Combine in downtown Toronto draws little fanfare outside of draftniks but what goes on behind the scenes could impact the game in the future.

Each team has been asked to submit reports on potential changes that could improve the game and also provide feedback on four-down football. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has started the 2022 edition of his self-named ‘Randy’s Road Trip’ where he travels around the country to every CFL city. He meets with fans and tries to answer questions about what the diehards care about most.

The only definitive response the large majority wants to hear is a simple guarantee. That’s it, that’s all.

‘Hi commissioner, will the CFL be switching from three to four downs?’

‘No. That will not happen — I can guarantee it.’

Instead, Ambrosie has talked around the inquiry each time it’s been thrown his way.

In reality, the hallmarks of the three-down game should be left alone and the focus needs to shift to what’s wrong with the business side at the league and team levels. Ambrosie said during his first state of the league address at the 2017 Grey Cup that he wanted to double league revenues. If the league had since added any substantial new money to its bottom line, that would be trumpeted far and wide.

According to one longtime football front office executive: “I honestly believe the league would rather change our entire game than admit the business of each team needs an overhaul.”

The CFL wants the stands to be filled and time after time it’s the football that comes under scrutiny. The leaders on the business side want to ‘fix’ the game being played on the field and are sure that will create packed stadiums while boosting interest. Scoring has been trending downward and tweaks can be made to improve the product, but the business needs to come a long way to meet the current standard of play.

General managers, head coaches and football operations staffers are judged on wins and losses. All the football people are asking for is that presidents and league office employees involved in the business have their performance judged in similar ways, which is completely fair. Football lifers want the CFL to explore best business practices for driving engagement and revenue instead of completely changing the three-down game.

“Ambrosie thought the Global plan would help, that has not exactly created new money for the league. I look at it and go, ‘Well, if we had more qualified people running things, that could help,'” one football source said.

“There is so much focus on what’s wrong with the Canadian game and not much focus on what’s wrong with people running the business operations of each club and within the league office.”

It’s like Groundhog Day each year for football executives: the game is broken, needs fixing and increased cash will flow. However, what’s more important changing rules or bringing in more revenue? Case in point playoff games with elite teams in the league and even the Grey Cup have had difficulty selling out in recent years.

The cold weather excuse has been used too much and needs to stop because Canadians enjoy the outdoors in many ways in the winter. The NHL’s Heritage Classic has drawn large crowds and Canada’s men’s soccer team playing World Cup qualifying games in the snow brought out droves of hearty fans.

It’s not an exact comparison because the hockey games are one-off hyped outdoor events and 36 years have passed since Canada qualified for the biggest soccer tournament in the world. However, you could argue CFL post-season games and the Grey Cup are one-offs because host cities are constantly changing. Yet there aren’t enough bums filling seats as Ambrosie likes to say.

Think about that.

The best the CFL has to offer and stadiums aren’t full. That has nothing to do with the number of downs, rules or quality of product on the field.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.