Everything you need to know from CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s state of the league address

Photo courtesy: CFL

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie addressed the media for an hour on Friday morning during his annual state of the league address, providing an update on the pressing issues facing the Canadian game.

Here is everything you need to know from the biggest press conference of the year.

Increased scoring

Ambrosie began his address by praising the league’s comprehensive offseason review process and touting the impact of the nine rule changes implemented, including the narrowing of the hash marks.

According to the commissioner, scoring increased by 17 percent in 2022, rising by almost a full touchdown to an average of roughly 50 points per game. Touchdowns were up 25 percent and two-and-outs decreased by 12 percent, creating a bump in the league’s “watchability index,” a formula invented by stats guru Steve Daniel to measure the relative entertainment value of games.

New CBA

For the first time in a while, the league’s relationship with its players was not a hot-button issue during the commissioner’s speech, thanks to the new seven-year collective bargaining agreement.

Ambrosie called the deal “transformational” and noted his pleasure in the changes that were implemented to address fan concerns with roster turnover, praising CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay and president Solomon Elimimian.

He later addressed revenue sharing with the players, saying that the baseline figure for their slice of the pie will be set when financials are finalized this offseason.

Health and safety

The new CBA saw an increase in the number of padded practices and Ambrosie was happy to report that it resulted in no change to the amount of in-practice injuries. In fact, he said total injuries were down 16 percent and the league had no repeat concussions.

Notably, the CFL has implemented a new approach to mental health going forward, which involves screening each player after training camp and assigning each team a specialized mental health consultant.

Genius Sports

Ambrosie continued to praise the league’s partnership with data and technology firm Genius Sports and how it will help usher the league into a new age of digital marketing. He pointed to the CFL’s five new free-to-play games and fan engagement initiatives as evidence of this approach, noting that traffic to the league’s online content and social media saw an uptick in 2022.

He also addressed fan concerns about the lack of forward-facing evidence of the partnership’s impact.

“You have to think about the relationship with Genius like a new development,” the commissioner stated. “For the first few months, all you can see is heavy equipment and holes being dug in the ground and that’s not the sexiest part of a new development. But unless you build that foundation and unless we get our technology foundation set in a firm place, it’s going to be impossible for us to achieve our long-term goals.”

The big three

The commissioner addressed the CFL’s three largest markets in a more positive light than normal, citing growth in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto.

He pointed to the Lions as a specific example, praising new owner Amar Doman, departing team president Rick LeLacheur, and his successor Duane Vienneau for putting more than 30,000 fans in the stands for the West Semi-Final. Ambrosie also shared that the Lions saw increases of 60 percent in group ticket sales, 73 percent in new season tickets, and 120 percent in single-game tickets.

Both the Alouettes and Argonauts drew over 20,000 spectators for their respective home playoff games as well, with Toronto advancing to the Grey Cup.

La Belle Province

On the topic of the Alouettes, Ambrosie did not appear concerned when asked about the franchise’s ownership situation.

Currently, a 75 percent majority share of the team is being controlled by the estate of the late Sid Spiegel, with eccentric son-in-law Gary Stern owning 25 percent. The commissioner said he’d been given no indication that that situation would change in the near future.

“To be fair, I probably asked the question gently — what their desire was, what their intentions were — but I think they knew exactly what I was asking,” Ambrosie said. “And I saw no hints at all that they were shying away from owning the football team.”

All-star fiasco

To his credit, the commissioner did not obfuscate when asked about the league’s erroneous release of the divisional all-star teams and subsequent retraction, blaming the mistake on an internal calculation error and a lack of oversight. The issue stemmed from the introduction of fan voting, which was incorrectly weighted to give each individual fan the same voting power as coaches and members of the media.

Ambrosie took responsibility for the mistake and said the league has put in place a new multi-stage vetting process for all future press releases, which must end with his approval.

“I have a pretty good eye for the players that play in our league and [chief football operations officer Greg Dick and I have talked about this, had we seen the list and we had looked at it — [chief communications officer] Matt Maychak has said this as well — we would have known that something wasn’t right,” he said.

Ambrosie also shared that he sent a personal letter of apology to each of the affected players, receiving several gracious responses.

Football operations cap

The commissioner said the league remains committed to the controversial football operations cap going forward, ensuring that the CFL grows within their means. He also shared that the CFLPA helped push for the implementation of the rule as a way to stop revenue from being siphoned away from them and into the front office infrastructures.

CFL 2.0

Ambrosie was relatively frank about the league’s Global program, admitting it had not yet generated meaningful revenue. However, he remains committed to the program through the expiry of the new CBA.

You can read Ambrosie’s full comments on this topic here, courtesy of 3DownNation‘s John Hodge.

Ambrosie’s contract status

The commissioner confirmed to reporters that his current contract does not include a set end date and that has not changed. He says he has no plans to leave the job but “serves at the pleasure” of the board of governors.

Broadcast deal

Ambrosie danced around the idea of broadcasting games on CTV and avoided answering whether or not they will seek to put the league on multiple networks when their current broadcast deal expires in 2026. He was highly complementary regarding TSN’s investment in the league but noted that they understand that the media landscape is changing.

“The product is no longer just our games. The product is content in general and we saw that with the QEW series as an example,” Ambrosie said. “There’s a couple of other initiatives that are in the works right now but those represent another huge part of the product ecosystem that we are working hard on.”

The commissioner also teased the fact that the league is working towards a new American television deal, though no details were ready to be revealed. The CFL is hoping to leverage any new deal to connect better with American college football fans interested in following their favourite players at the next level.

“I’m happy to report the conversations we’ve been having are very positive and I think we will have a substantially improved economic situation in our U.S. media rights when we’re done,” he said.

Schedule and expansion

Despite having the ability to move the season up by as much as a month under the CBA, Ambrosie confirmed that the timing of the 2023 season would remain static. He reiterated that adding a tenth franchise would make such a change possible and expansion remains one of the league’s primary focuses as a result.

Player discipline

Asked about the league’s player discipline structure in light of the Garrett Marino controversy, Ambrosie said that he was satisfied with how the league handled the incident and the improvements they have made since he assumed the job.

“What we made a commitment to the players to do is to make every effort to be consistent in the way we handle discipline and I believe we’ve made very positive steps in that way,” he explained. “But our system is now set. I think it’s a positive system. We’re working better with the PA perhaps than ever we have in the past and we’re going to continue to use this system and try to improve the system that we already have in place.”

He said that Marino’s historic four-game suspension and later ban from the league was decided upon using a strict decision tree-based program which dictates specific responses for different levels of offence.

CFL Week

Standing in the home of the first-ever CFL Week, the commissioner seemed to indicate that no plans were in the works to revive the event in the future. Instead, the league is looking to create more of what he called “touch points” throughout the year, using a new-age digital approach.

“I think the simple answer is that we need multiple touch points in all of our CFL cities, all the time through the offseason and all the time during the season,” Ambrosie said. “I don’t believe the answer is to look backwards for how we generate those touch points. I think the opportunity is to look forward to think about how we create more events.”

He specifically referenced the popular Netflix documentary series F1: Drive to Survive as a template for what the league wants to do, but also said teams need to ensure players are out in the community consistently. At this stage, it seems a major in-person offseason event is off the table.

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.