‘You can’t just keep talking, you have to take action’: CFL commish Randy Ambrosie approaching expansion in ‘Atlantic Canadian way’

CFL expansion into Atlantic Canada is at the forefront of commissioner Randy Ambrose’s mind.

Soon after being hired as the league’s 14th commissioner in 2017, Ambrosie began talking about expanding the CFL to 10 teams to truly become coast-to-coast.

Since hosting a preseason game in Haifax in 2005, the league has not been able to figure out a way to put together a viable stadium out east to house a CFL team. However, the commissioner believes the three-down league can get into that market with what he’s calling a “temporary-permanent” solution.

“What we’ve done is a lot of listening and one of the things that we’ve heard is come at this in an Atlantic Canadian way. Think about the market finding a solution to the stadium rather than the CFL defining its need for this stadium,” Ambrosie told 3DownNation.

“One of the things that came out of that is perhaps what Atlantic Canada can start with is what we’ve been describing as temporary-permanent. An expanded stadium based on the way we do our Touchdown Atlantic games now and the way we do some of our Grey Cups.”

The league has staged a number of Touchdown Atlantic games over the years, most recently last season when the Toronto Argonauts “hosted” the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. The two teams played at Raymond Field on Acadia University’s campus. The league expanded capacity from the 3,000 permeant seats the facility usually has to over 10,000 for the one-off event.

Touchdown Atlantic will return in 2023 with the same two teams playing only this time the game will take place at Huskies Stadium on the St. Mary’s University campus in Halifax. A stadium solution has not been the only holdback for trying to get a team running on the east coast. The other major piece has been finding a committed local ownership group.

“Gary Drummond and his partners, I have nothing but the greatest respect for but we agreed that part of this process was probably time to put that on hold for now,” Ambrosie said. “We said to them that we were going to be out there talking to other groups and they’ve been perfectly comfortable with that.”

The league that group in place in 2018 when Schooners Sports and Entertainment, led by Drummond and Anthony LeBlanc, were granted a conditional franchise which included lots of pomp and circumstance during the Grey Cup Festival that year in Edmonton. The coronavirus pandemic and a lack of interest from local government leaders, including Mayor Mike Savage, to put public funds towards building a multi-million dollar stadium kiboshed those plans.

Without a current viable local ownership group, one idea that has been floated is the league owning and operating an east coast franchise until a permanent owner can be found. That would get the CFL into the market, potentially prove that a team in Atlantic Canada is viable and would allow the league time to find a committed local owner to take over while still being able to reap the on-field benefits expansion would provide.

“If I was asked by my governors, I would tell them not to do that. I say that because when you see what happens in a market with local leadership and local energy, you see what [B.C. Lions owner] Amar [Doman] has done. The community teams, Saskatchewan owned by the people of Saskatchewan, Winnipeg owned by the people of Winnipeg and of Manitoba. You see what Bob Young and Scott Mitchell have done in Hamilton. What John Ruddy and Roger Greenberg have done,” Ambrosie said.

“They’re in the market, I’d say that is the foundation of a great franchise. Somebody, some group of people, who are in that market, who believe passionately in their market, who want to give back to the community. A big part of our value proposition is our connection and commitment to the community. If the governors asked me, I wouldn’t suggest that’s the right path. Let’s go find somebody, show them why this is the right thing to do and it’s the right time to do it, and get them committed.”

Ambrosie views expansion as having a positive effect beyond simply adding a 10th team that could make the CFL product more attractive for fans. Moving the schedule up to accommodate for favourable weather conditions has been Ambrosie’s goal since becoming commissioner.

“There’s a lot of energy within the league. The benefits that would come with that 10th team, changes our scheduling. Instead of having to play 18 games in 21 weeks, we could play 18 games in 19 weeks. That means Grey Cup isn’t the third week of November, it’s the end of the first week of November. It means your playoff games are in October and it means more of our games are played in the summer season, which is really good for the CFL and fans.”

Revenue for CFL games in the summer is higher than any other time of the schedule. While adding a 10th franchise would definitely be a crowning achievement of his commissionership, making the schedule more fan-friendly with fewer cold-weather games would be a major plus for the league. Ambrosie is keenly aware that the CFL expanding out east has been a topic that’s been discussed for a long time and he realizes that it’s time to replace talking with doing.

“On the CFL’s side, I think we all know that we just can’t keep talking about this because at some point fatigue sets in. We believe that expansion to 10 teams is really a critical next step for this league’s future. We also have to say you can’t just keep talking, you have to take action. The next several months will be critical,” Ambrosie said.

“Our plan is to go into Atlantic Canada in a very positive, very forthright way. We’re going to define what expansion looks like. We’ve made a commitment to our board. We’ll make that case for what expansion needs to look like to potential ownership groups. We’re going to work with our governors to make sure we’re clear and precise on what expansion will look like and then we’re going to take that to the market.”

When might the CFL reach double-digit teams for the first time since American expansion in the mid-1990s? While the commissioner will not lay out a timetable for a 10th team to begin play, he does believe this new temporary-permanent stadium idea could get it moving faster than many believe.

“That was a really important moment in the process. We started having this conversation and the more we had it the more energy those key centres of influence were bringing to the conversation,” Ambrosie said.

“That could be a real solution — it’s got economy to it and can be done fairly quickly. We have been talking to people who are genuinely interested in having the conversation with us. That happened because temporary-permanent looks like it’s a viable way to approach the expansion into another market.”

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