CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has promised to bring “a lot of energy” and renewed focus to the league’s mission to expand to the Maritimes. However, it is unlikely to come without an ownership group, according to one member of the CFL’s board of governors.
Some analysts have speculated that the league might be willing to take on the ownership of an expansion franchise itself in order to push their Atlantic dream over the finish line. According to Saskatchewan Roughriders’ president Craig Reynolds — one of those who would be in charge of paying the bill for such an endeavour — that may not be realistic.
“I think there would be challenges with that, to have a league own one franchise and the other nine are privately owned or, in our case, community-owned. I’m not sure that’s the model,” Reynolds said during an interview on 620 CKRM’s The Sportscage. “That hasn’t really been something that we’ve talked about so, obviously, I can’t really comment on it too much. But I think there might be challenges with that, for sure.”
The CFL has been tangling with the prospect of Atlantic expansion since the 1980s and went as far as to award the franchise to Schooner Sports and Entertainment (SSE) in 2018, an ownership group consisting of NHL execs Anthony LeBlanc, Gary Drummond, and AMJ Campbell Van Lines president Bruce Bowser. The group secured over 6,000 deposits in a season ticket drive and landed municipal funding for a new stadium before the COVID-19 pandemic saw their local support evaporate.
SSE was not involved in the return of the league’s Touchdown Atlantic game in 2022 due to doubts about their ability to deliver a franchise. They are reportedly no longer part of the CFL’s latest phase of expansion talks.
Despite his belief that external ownership is needed, Reynolds is bullish on the prospect of expansion after experiencing the Touchdown Atlantic game for himself last year. 10,866 fans filled Raymond Field at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. to watch the Riders take on the Toronto Argonauts. The game sold out in less than 24 hours and a study found that the event generated more than $12.7 million in economic impact for the province.
“I was blown away. It was awesome to be there and just be part of that event,” Reynolds recalled. “It was just outstanding, the buzz in the city, obviously aided by our fans who travel very, very well. I know there’ll be thousands of them again this year, but it was an amazing atmosphere out there and I just couldn’t help but think about how cool this would be to have a permanent franchise out there.”
The Riders will be returning to Nova Scotia for a second straight year in 2023, this time taking on the Argos at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax on July 29. That game could prove critical for the future of expansion, as the CFL has shifted their goal from the construction of an expensive professional stadium to potentially launching a franchise from what Ambrosie has dubbed a “temporary/permanent” facility like the one that will be constructed on campus.
Despite the inherent challenges that come with travelling that distance for a game, Reynolds is thrilled to have the Riders spearheading the event for the second year in a row.
“We embraced it. I had the conversation right away with [GM Jeremy O’Day] and Coach [Craig] Dickenson around whether we would be interested in doing this and they both right away said absolutely. Our players loved it, it was a great experience. It’s a great bonding experience for our team and obviously, it’s great for our fans,” he explained.
“You’re gonna have short turnarounds, you’re gonna have travel. As part of the schedule last year, we had some challenging weeks as well. We don’t look at it from that perspective. We feel privileged to be a part of this, we’re lucky to be part of it. We put up our hands right away and I said to the commissioner, ‘If we’re doing a Touchdown Atlantic, we’d love to be a part of it again.”
While a one-off event is fine, Reynolds and the rest of the league hope that trips to Halifax will soon become a regular part of the schedule. That just won’t be possible until the CFL can find someone willing to take on the franchise.