Randy Ambrosie not concerned about Calgary Stampeders but organization has ‘some work to do’

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie isn’t concerned about the health of the Calgary Stampeders, though he recognizes the organization is trending down at a time in which other franchises are turning the corner coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t have any concerns about the marketplace but Calgary Sports and Entertainment, (chairman and lead governor) John Bean, (vice-president of business operations) Jay McNeil, and (president) John Hufnagel would say they feel like they’ve got some work to do,” Ambrosie said last week in Winnipeg. “They really did feel that the COVID years in ’20 and ’21 really did have an impact on them.”

The announced attendance figure for Calgary’s home-opener on June 8 was nothing short of a disaster. The game attracted an audience of only 17,942, which was the smallest crowd McMahon Stadium has seen in over 25 years.

Attendance improved to 24,923 in Week 3, though it was greatly enhanced by those who bought tickets to watch the Saskatchewan Roughriders. 3DownNation reporter Ryan Ballantine estimated that the crowd was approximately 40 percent green, as evidenced by this photo taken early in the second quarter.

Photo: Ryan Ballantine/3DownNation.

In 2019, Calgary’s home game against the Riders drew a crowd of 30,210. Even contests involving Saskatchewan have seen attendance in Cowtown decrease by almost 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

McMahon Stadium is easily the worst facility in the CFL and the lack of amenities at the 63-year-old venue are surely a factor in declining attendance. The Stampeders were left out of a recent deal to build a new proposed downtown arena that will cost $1.2 billion with 70 percent of the cost being covered by local and provincial governments.

“That stadium is getting older,” said Ambrosie. “I think they’re doing a lot with the facility they’ve got but over a longer period of time it’d be nice to see the Stampeders playing in a world class facility, which I think they deserve and one that would be at the level that we have in Winnipeg and that we have in Saskatchewan.”

In April, McNeil told 3DownNation that the Stampeders were sitting shy of 15,000 season-ticket holders for the 2023 season, a number that was down 30 percent from over 22,000 in 2015. The club’s goal was to reach 15,700 this season, which they did not achieve, per source. Instead, the team expects their season-ticket base will remain essentially the same as last year, which means they’ve at least stopped the trend of an annual decline.

Attendance fell league-wide by 19.8 percent from 2010 to 2022, though Calgary outpaced the trend at a clip of 23.6 percent. The data from 2023 is comprised of only two games, though Saturday’s contest against the Riders will likely be the second-best attended of the year behind only the Labour Day Classic. As such, it appears the club is on track to set yet another low in 2023.

Photo: 3DownNation

The ticket office isn’t the only place the club is struggling to draw attention. The club’s first two games of the 2023 regular season drew average audiences of only 250,000 viewers on TSN, which is far below the season average of 435,400 through Week 2. In fairness, this is a small sample size. The club’s first game also coincided with Game 3 of the Stanley Cup, which dominated the broadcasting landscape.

In 2022, Calgary was the fifth-most-watched team on English-language television. Had the numbers also included French-language broadcasts, it’s possible the Stampeders would have finished as low as seventh.

There’s a long way to go but a number of CFL teams appear to be rounding the corner following the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers made a combined net profit of $12.1 million in 2022, including the extra revenue Saskatchewan generated by hosting the Grey Cup. A minority share of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was reportedly sold for $20 million early last year. Amar Doman has breathed new life into the B.C. Lions, while Pierre Karl Péladeau appears to have the Montreal Alouettes getting back on the right track.

Even the Toronto Argonauts, the league’s perennial attendance ne’er-do-wells, appear to be making headway. The club drew a crowd of 15,967 in Week 1, which was their best-attended game in almost four years.

One thing the Stampeders have been able to hang their hats on since John Hufnagel rejoined the team in 2008 is having a highly-competitive team on the field. The organization has won three Grey Cup during his tenure with seven first-place finishes in the West Division and 11 postseason victories.

Though the club is still far from a pushover, it’s become clear that they are no longer near the class of the league. Calgary hasn’t won a playoff game since 2018 and has finished third in the West Division in back-to-back seasons. The club currently sits fourth in the standings with a 1-2 record with both of their losses coming against divisional opponents.

Injuries are undoubtedly a factor in the club’s slow start as many of its key offensive weapons are on the six-game injured list. Things only got worse this past week when Malik Henry, arguably the team’s most explosive receiver, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon that will keep him out for the rest of the year.

Jake Maier has failed to excel as the club’s new franchise quarterback, throwing for two touchdowns and five interception through three starts on the year. Between his poor play, injuries to Ka’Deem Carey and Reggie Begelton, and the departure of gregarious veterans like Bo Levi Mitchell, Derek Dennis, and Shawn Lemon, it’s difficult to figure out who fans should look to as the face of the franchise.

Ambrosie believes the Stampeders have the right leadership in place, though they’ve clearly got their work cut out for them.

“I spent an entire day with Jay McNeil and I was very impressed by just how thoughtful he was about some of the programs that they’re building. They’re working hard to attract a younger crowd into the stadium and they still have a very strong fan base in Calgary, make no mistake about it, but they feel like they’ve got some work to do,” said Ambrosie.

“I’ve come to really appreciate and respect John Bean, I’ve gotten to know Jay McNeil and I have a tremendous confidence that he’s on the right track there and of course I wouldn’t bet against on John Hufnagel, so I think it’s good.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was a global event that affected every team in professional sports, not just the Calgary Stampeders. It’s a convenient excuse but one that’s quickly losing relevance, especially as other teams reach full recovery.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.