At the painful end of a months-long saga to try to save the 2020 CFL season, Randy Ambrosie admitted that the thought of not playing football this season stung.
“From my perspective,” the CFL commissioner told reporters during a 30-minute conference call on Monday, “I could spend a lot of my time focused on being negative and angry. I’m just not going to do that.
“I more feel a sense of sorrow and disappointment (in the cancellation of the season), but tomorrow we’re going to get up and take this league to a better, bigger, stronger place. That’s the attitude we’re going to take. Today we’ll reflect on what might have been but tomorrow it’s back to business and building this great league of ours.”
For the first time since 1919, the Grey Cup will not be presented. The 2020 CFL season couldn’t get past COVID-19, which poses many of the same challenges to the league as it does to businesses around the world right now. Without being able to bring fans together, without federal government assistance that aligned with the league’s needs, the CFL’s board of governors voted on Monday morning to cancel the attempted season, popping a would-be bubble in Winnipeg before it could ever form.
As it eyes the 2021 season, the league faces its share of challenges. In his call with reporters on Monday, Ambrosie attempted to answer some of the most pressing questions that the league faces. Here are some of the key takeaways from the call.
Bringing the league back stronger than ever
“I had a chance to have a call with our governors this morning and around that table was a great deal of resolve that we make the announcement, that we come back together after we get through announcing the disappointment of the lost season, but that we find a way to make this work,” Ambrosie said.
“We’ve been working on our financial model, looking for ways to create more efficiency in our business. We’re combining ways to work more and do more together and finding a way to share more together to make our business stronger than it has been in the past.
“There is no magic answer to all of the challenges that we’re going to face. But I have the good fortune of waking up every day with a remarkable group of governors and a remarkable group of owners. I get a chance now to go back to them with some time that we’ve never had before to really work on a long-term plan.
(We can) think about how we can accelerate our plans to become more international and look for other revenue opportunities that can open doors for us to a bigger and stronger future. I simply believe in the people that I work with, I believe that we will rise to this challenge and with the support of our fans and our sponsors, I believe that this league can be positioned for the best future possible. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I believe that together we will see 2021 be the year of a great comeback for our league.”
A new year with all nine teams
Ambrosie admitted that there were challenges in front of the league, but he was confident that all nine teams would remain in the league for next season.
“What has become obvious to us is that we have an opportunity to run the league differently than it’s been run in the past. A more cooperative ecosystem off the field, more sharing of resources that we haven’t done in the past,” he said.
“I’m confident that if we look for ways to be a more unified organization off the field, it will allow us to be as competitive as we’ve ever been on the field. My optimism is high, I’m feeling confident.”
In Montreal on Monday, Alouettes president Mario Cecchini stressed that their ownership — Toronto businessmen Gary Stern and Sid Spiegel — remain fully committed to them and the city. The duo bought the team in early January.
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What happened with federal government funding?
“It was never brought to our attention that there was a lack of transparency (in dealing with the government), quite honestly,” Ambrosie said.
“I think we were as clear and concise and transparent as we could possibly have been. We tried hard, we worked really hard and there were a couple of times where there were really bright spots that we saw an opening and a willingness and an interest by the government to work with us.
“Those moments really gave us confidence that something could be done. I don’t know why it didn’t happen. They did show us a couple of opportunities that we were clear with them wouldn’t work for us and then new ideas surfaced and those looked even more promising, but they never materialized. I don’t believe the problem was a lack of transparency.
“It just seemed in the end that they couldn’t get done what we thought they would and what we hoped that they would.”
Learning from the experience
Ambrosie was asked how much responsibility he took in the season not happening this year.
“The honest answer is in all things, there are things that we can learn. I can look back and I have looked back on how this all unfolded and there are things that I would like to have done differently, to try to learn from those things and move on,” he said. “But in that, you also have resolve. I don’t believe in this league any less than I believed in it when I left Calgary after Grey Cup 2019.
“I do feel that I am responsible for the fact that we aren’t on the field this year but I’ve resolved to learn from what we’ve experienced and I’m looking forward to a bright future. The commitment I’ve made to my governors is to work tirelessly with our presidents, to work tirelessly with our football operations, partners, our coaches, our GMs and to work with our players in a way that, frankly I think can bring credit to this league. Learn from our mistakes and move on because frankly, that’s life.”
Managing losses in 2020 and 2021
“I think it’s safe to say that we expect that our losses will be larger in 2020. Obviously, our single biggest source of revenue is ticket sales,” Ambrosie said.
“Our teams are going to begin (on Tuesday) reaching out to their season ticket holders and talking about 2021 and some other…exciting plans that we’ve got that we will reveal in the days ahead. We’ll be talking to our fans directly about how they can help us get through this period of uncertainty and into a better 2021.”
Part of that includes targeting markets and fans across Canada that have been untapped by the CFL.
“I think we’ll plan that 2021 will be a softer year for revenue,” Ambrosie said.
“But if we can expand our fan base…if we use this time to reach into the communities or to newer Canadians that may not have had an opportunity to know how amazing it is to sit in a CFL stadium and cheer on your local team, how much you’ll feel more Canadian when you do these things. Using our stadiums to celebrate being Canadian, using our stadiums to celebrate our diversity are just some of the things that we’ve been talking about in the weeks and months ahead as a way to really broaden our fan base and through that lens, making 2021 a bigger, better, stronger year for our league.”