Randy’s Privateers & eight other thoughts on my Touchdown Atlantic experience

Photo courtesy: Ted Pritchard/Rattleboxmultimedia.ca/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Every week, I produce a column detailing my thoughts on the play of the B.C. Lions but with the team on a bye last week, I decided to travel a little further afield.

Now safely back from a cross-country trek, here are my thoughts on Touchdown Atlantic, the city of Halifax and the future of CFL expansion.

Randy’s Privateers

There were many positives to be drawn from Touchdown Atlantic but no fair assessment of the week can begin without first acknowledging the stark realities facing CFL expansion to the Maritimes.

Everything we’ve heard from the CFL and commissioner Randy Ambosie over the last few months has been overwhelmingly positive regarding the launch of a tenth franchise in the very near future. In fact, Ambrosie has gone so far as to basically guarantee it and this past weekend was supposed to be the proving ground for those claims.

Instead, much like the lone survivor in the iconic Atlantic Canadian folk-anthem Barrett’s Privateers, the CFL washed ashore on a Halifax pier last week with its hopes broken.

That metaphor works especially well since the league has spent much of the last few years cruising the seas for American gold, though I might stop short of calling them the scummiest vessel I’ve ever seen.

The first shot was fired courtesy of 3Down‘s own Justin Dunk, who booked a sit-down interview with Halifax mayor Mike Savage shortly after our arrival in town. In it, the mayor smashed any immediate hopes for a CFL stadium in the city like a bowl of eggs, noting there was “no political appetite” to reopen conversations around supplying public money for a facility.

For all his big talk and bluster, Ambrosie must have known that real questions were going to be asked to the people with the political power to put a team in Halifax and their answers wouldn’t be positive. Yet the league still failed to shape a narrative that made itself look like anything other than a business begging for tax-payer money with hat in hand — much in the same way they were at the start of the pandemic.

Perhaps even more damning was the absence of Schooner Sports and Entertainment — the ownership group of the proposed Atlantic Schooners — from the week of festivities. Speaking to Murray McCormick of the Regina Leader-Post, lead partner Gary Drummond implied that the group did not feel comfortable enough with the state of the expansion process to make “statements in public” — a line that felt like a direct shot at Ambrosie’s loose lips.

The absence of SSE was particularly notable given the fact that the CFL had marketed them as co-hosts for the events in Halifax before scrubbing mention of the Atlantic Schooners from an event that had partially co-opted the team’s logo for its own. No matter which way you look at it, that was a massive unforced error by the league.

Neither the Schooners’ uncertainty nor Savage’s back-tracking on stadium funding are death blows to expansion, but both make it clear that nothing is happening in the near future. If the league was smart, it would have tailored its messaging to those realities, been honest about the challenges facing expansion, and used its continued presence as proof of commitment to the region.

Instead, in large part due to Ambrosie’s contrived optimism, they came away from a weekend that was overwhelmingly positive in so many other respects looking like fools and with a fan base that no longer trusts them to get this important project across the finish line.

There’s no word on whether or not Ambrosie will now turn his attention to Sherbrooke to build his expansion legacy.

Special sauce

Despite those disappointing developments regarding the timeline for expansion, the question remained as to whether Halifax is a city that could support a CFL franchise if one were ever placed there.

On that front, I believe that Halifax has the special sauce to be successful — and I’m not talking about the type you pour over top of a donair.

It’s hard to take in all the sights while travelling for work but my initial impression of downtown Halifax is that it should immediately be placed on your vacation wishlist. Compact and walkable, it combines historic charm with a young vibe and vibrant nightlife. The food was outstanding and there was live music seemingly on every street corner. You could spend two months in the city’s core and never go to the same bar twice.

It is unsurprising then that the mayor would be bullish on keeping any conversation around future facilities focused near that electric downtown. While shooting down almost every possibility in his interview with Dunk, Savage appeared to leave some wiggle room around a stadium in the Halifax Commons — Canada’s oldest public park — where the local Canadian Premier League club, the Halifax Wanderers, are drawing sellout crowds and want a permanent venue.

The city government does not seem to want a facility there large enough to satisfy CFL decision-makers and creating one would mean doing away with some well-used public space, but I can’t help but dream about the possibilities if a compromise could be struck. A BMO Field-like venue in that spot would have arguably the best location in the league, just a 20-minute walk around the historic Citadel hill from the heart of the action downtown. You would have to believe it would be a coveted venue for all types of other sporting events beyond the CFL as well.

Despite a vocal contingent of ready-made Schooners fans, I’m not certain how much pre-existing love for the CFL there is in Atlantic Canada — many of the servers and Uber drivers we struck up conversations with this week had no idea a game was happening. I don’t think you need that to be successful in a town like Halifax though, where the CFL would instantly become the biggest show around.

The Wanderers in soccer and the Mooseheads in junior hockey are at or near the top in attendance for their leagues despite playing in some of the smallest venues and I’d expect the Schooners to be no different. All of that set against a backdrop that will instantly become every visiting fan and player’s favourite road trip could be something special.

Hungry like the Wolfville

Construction around the existing football field at Saint Mary’s University meant that Touchdown Atlantic could not be played in Halifax, instead taking place an hour away in tiny Wolfville — the home of Acadia University.

What the CFL managed to pull off at 56-year-old Raymond Field in a city of 5,000 people was nothing short of miraculous.

I’ve been to a lot of football games in my time and while living in B.C. might not provide me with the best perspective, I can confidently say that Touchdown Atlantic had the best atmosphere of any I have attended. An announced crowd of 10,886 was on hand in the makeshift stands and only safety regulations could limit it to that number. Every seat was filled and it was standing room only in the end zone.

The atmosphere was electric right from the pre-game tailgate and the outdoor concourse felt as much like a fair as a football game. The weather was perfect, the beer was flowing and the football on display was tremendous — if a little chippy for the party going on around it.

It wasn’t an ideal place to cover a football game, sitting in the back row with my laptop on my lap, but I couldn’t have cared less. This was the sport as it was meant to be viewed and to be frank, several CFL teams could benefit from its model.

The league desperately needs to shift away from its financial reliance on in-person attendance in the coming years and packing a small house provides a much better product to the consumer than shooting for much larger numbers in a half-empty stadium.

It took three weeks for the CFL to erect the upgraded seating capacity and I’m certain that bussing thousands of fans in from Halifax was no easy feat. Their performance on both fronts couldn’t have received a higher grade from me and they succeeded in showing any Halifax politician who may have been in attendance exactly what their city is currently missing out on.

Pier 13

Nearly a million new Canadians stepped foot in this country for the first time through the terminal at Halifax’s historic Pier 21, but the city welcomed an entirely different onslaught of foreigners last week.

Rider Nation descended on the Nova Scotia capital in full force for the game and the vibrant downtown core was caught in an overwhelming sea of green from the moment we arrived.

Everyone knows that Riders travel exceptionally well but it can be something of an irritant to be overrun with opposing fans if you reside in another CFL city. Meeting Rider Nation on neutral turf so far away from home gave me a newfound appreciation for the league’s best fan base and I was glad to be able to down a few soda pops with many of them.

Some will question if Touchdown Atlantic would have been nearly the success it was if not for the Riders playing and there’s some truth to that. Indeed, there may not be a city in the world that couldn’t pull off a CFL game if they simply invited Saskatchewan to play and made sure the local grocery store was full of watermelons.

However, while the number of travelling Riders fans numbered in the thousands, I still don’t think they quite reached the threshold of a majority in the stadium. There were plenty of local attendees and I encountered at least one fan from every CFL city who made the trek out to the event.

What Rider Nation succeeded in doing was enhancing the game and showing what a strong regional fanbase stemming from a small city can produce. They will be the template if a team is ever to succeed in the Maritimes and the presence of the 13th man was better marketing material for loving the CFL than anything the league could have produced.

Ain’t it Grand

In addition to the game-day festivities, the CFL hosted a block party in the heart of downtown Halifax, right in front of city hall. The turnout on Thursday night was somewhat lacklustre, but the area known as Grand Parade came alive on Friday and Saturday with people packing in off the street to take in the free outdoor concerts the league provided.

The musical acts were varied and each excellent in their own way, providing a great atmosphere in the park to mill about or have a few drinks. However, the league made a couple of critical errors that detracted from the success of the turnout.

I did some amateur polling in the crowd when it was at its busiest and what I found was that the majority of people coming in off the street had no idea why they were there. They were loving the concert but didn’t know it was a CFL event or in some cases, even what the CFL was.

Much of the problem, in my mind, stemmed from the league’s decision to brand the party as Grey Cup 109 Headquarters rather than emphasize the Touchdown Atlantic connection or put their own brand front and centre. Multiple people remarked to me their confusion as to why there were signs all around for an event in November that was not taking place in the city.

If you weren’t already a follower of the league, it was not easy to tell from the signage that the CFL was playing host to the party and perhaps more egregiously, there was not a single screen showing the CFL games that were actively being played while the concerts were going on.

I forgive the CFL for some of their failure to market Touchdown Atlantic throughout the Halifax area during the week — after all, the game was long ago sold out and Wolfville could hardly have accommodated any more people trying to come in to scalp tickets. However, the fact that people were able to leave their street party without forming an impression of the league is a problem.

When you’re in the business of converting new fans, it’s good to bring in people who have no idea what you’re about. The trick is, you actually have to tell them.

About damn time

My East Coast excursion provided me with a completely different perspective on the scheduling challenges faced by the CFL and how they will affect any potential expansion.

Living on the west coast, I grew up used to everything happening early. The four-hour time shift to Halifax may not seem like a lot on paper but I suddenly found myself watching CFL football after midnight. A typical 7 p.m. PST start for a game in Vancouver, like the one I’ll attend on Thursday, would kick off at 11 p.m. in Nova Scotia.

That means it’s simply not reasonable for someone in Halifax to watch every single CFL game as I have become accustomed to. There is no doubt that affects the league’s casual following in the region and emphasizes why a local presence would be so important.

The CFL has a difficult task on its hands with scheduling at the best of times, but adding another timezone and a fifth game in some weeks is a completely new challenge I didn’t fully appreciate before. I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to tackle it.

Uphill battle

Halifax has a lot of things going for it but perhaps its worst quality is being built on the side of a hill so steep it would be illegal in most modern constructed cities.

As a result, my physical challenge for the week was to chase Justin Dunk around the city as he bounded up the incline like a mountain goat who had just snorted pre-workout.

I have never had so much sympathy for OUA defences in the late 2000’s as I did while stumbling around behind him. As payback, he was subjected to an endless string of sea shanties sung with perfect tone-deafness by me at Saturday’s game.

I’m not sure who had the more challenging weekend.


It’s a theme across all sports these days but the amount of control that teams have over player availability to the media has never been stronger. That was again on display at Touchdown Atlantic.

With the fight between Duke Williams and Shaquille Richardsonand later spitting allegations — clearly the main story of the game, neither player was provided to the media despite requests. This, of course, came on the heels of Riders’ defensive tackle Garrett Marino failing to answer any questions for his hit on Jeremiah Masoli the week before.

From a team PR narrative, this makes sense. There is no more effective way to control the narrative than not letting someone speak and it may protect your player from causing further damage to his reputation or incurring a fine. But it also stops their side of the story from being told and ultimately burying conflict like this hurts the league.

People want controversy. They want heroes and villains. It sparks conversation and drives interest in the product. Imagine how much hype could be added to next week’s rematch if those two players were allowed to speak about each other in public. Now, we may not hear from either of them at all and any responses we do get may not be authentic.

Back in the day, open locker room access provided those sorts of stories. At the very minimum, teams need to provide media access to the players who are the story — whether or not that is positive.

Schooner or later

So, where do we go from here? Are the Atlantic Schooners dead in the water or is expansion to Halifax still a real possibility?

I continue to believe it is the league’s best hope to get to ten teams — an absolutely critical goal for the future — but it may not happen in the next five years. Like most of the things the CFL wishes to achieve, there is no quick fix here. They need to show they’re willing to do the hard work.

That means finding compromises with local government that could result in a multi-use football stadium being built in the city and finding a group that is willing to foot enough of the bill to make it happen. If Schooner Sports and Entertainment isn’t that group, you may need to find someone else.

Otherwise, your expansion option is Moncton, which could work with its current stadium but is roughly a quarter of Halifax’s size and would need much more regional support. As much as I love Quebec City, expanding there is a pipe dream right now and if you are wanting to wait that long on a project, why not do it for the Nova Scotia capital?

Pleasant statements and wishful thinking aren’t going to get expansion done and frankly, they have the opposite effect. Ambrosie has made the league look both presumptive and desperate, a combination which will curry no favour with politicians.

The CFL proved this week that it has a worthwhile product to sell and they’ll have to prove it again. It will take more than one Touchdown Atlantic event in Halifax to show what a permanent team can add to a growing city. It will take a legitimate financial investment in the community and an attempt at partnership — that term Ambrosie loves so much, but rarely seems to execute.

I hope they are willing to make it happen because every fan deserves a chance to make their own Eastern pilgrimage.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.