O’Leary: Randy Ambrosie on an Aug 5 kickoff, XFL talks and more

Wednesday felt like a bad news/good news day.

The bad news, that the 2021 CFL season has had its start date pushed back to Aug. 5, will feature 14 games and that the Grey Cup will be played on Dec. 12 in Hamilton can feel like a gut punch. The hope, as Canada fights its way through a third wave of COVID-19, is that the country is strongly emerging from the pandemic by August and that normalcy — a word we’ve been socially distanced from for 13 months now — will be settling in from BC all the way to Newfoundland.

The good news is the certainty that’s in the league’s statement on its plans for this year.

“We will play football in 2021,” CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said.

The CFL is unlike other professional sports leagues that can get by on their astronomical TV deals, which afford for games in empty arenas and stadiums throughout Canada and the U.S., easily reaching a sitting audience of hundreds of millions of people. Fans in the stands mean everything to the CFL. The pandemic is its worst enemy.

“The CFL depends on ticket revenue more than other professional sports leagues in North America,” Ambrosie said.

“Fans in the stands account for at least half of our revenue. Our clubs already stand to suffer substantial financial losses this year. Playing without fans in the stands would dramatically increase those losses.”

With the announcement of a revised start date, Ambrosie sat down over Zoom with CFL.ca to talk about the range of options in front of the league as it works to stage its season, its talks with the government and its ongoing conversations with the XFL.

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CFL.ca: The news of a postponement is of course disappointing. How did the league land on the revised Aug. 5 start date and how confident are you, knowing that there are many parts still moving on this, that we’ll actually start on that date?

Randy Ambrosie: Well, I’ve been described as an unabashed optimist, so you can count me as a guy that is very optimistic. How we came to (the start date) really came from guidance in our ongoing discussions with public health officials.

There was a sentiment that we’ll know a lot more in early June. Obviously the public health authorities are dealing with this third wave and all of the stresses and pressures that go with it, but we got some well-informed signals that early June is a reasonable timeframe to get a much better feel for where we’ll be. A lot more Canadians will have been vaccinated by that time.

Hopefully if we all do our part to really adhere to the guidelines that are being asked of us by government officials, there’s a real good feeling by early June we’ll have a pretty good signal that we’ll be good to go. Thursday, August the fifth was a date that…was well-supported by all of our teams. It gives us a chance for a 14-game schedule with a Grey Cup in Hamilton on December the 12th. We’re really excited to be talking about playing football again.

CFL.ca: You mentioned the third wave. How much did that derail the planning the league had done to this point and was that the final straw for letting go of the June 10 kickoff date?

RA: If you go back to late January, early February, boy, we were starting to feel pretty good. I think just generally we were all as Canadians starting to feel pretty good. Then of course, we got hit with this third wave. I’m at my home in Ontario, where we’ve obviously been hit very hard. There’s little doubt that the third wave has had a significant effect on the original plan. But the game of football teaches us and it’s one of the reasons why every kid, boys and girls should play the game. Football teaches a valuable lesson that when you get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up. And that’s what this league has resolved to do.

CFL.ca: Do you feel like you’re in a good place with the government on the return to play plan?

RA: Yeah, very much so. A real shout out to the team that’s working on those return to play protocols, our team doctors, a few of which have just been amazing and we’ll forever be in their debt for the effort that they’ve made to really help us.

I think the conversations with the government have been very positive. They’ve acknowledged that our plan is very well done. We’ve still got a little bit of work to do and a lot of that work just relates to adjusting to the circumstances that are always changing but we appear to be in good shape.

Again, a real shout out to the group that has got us this far. I feel very good about that and very proud of the work that our team has done.

CFL.ca: The statement that’s gone out mentions contingency plans and the depth of options that you have to carry out this season. Can you elaborate on those in terms of what they might look like? How flexible can the league be with the games it can play and could the Grey Cup be pushed back any further?

RA: What I can say is that in this announcement, behind this announcement, are backup plans and backup plans to our backup plans and backup plans to the backup plans.

The one thing we all felt very positive about is our commitment to playing football in 2021 and getting our players back on the field and getting our fans back in the stadiums. We’ve come at this through the lens of maximum adaptability. We feel very good about our August 5 announcement but we also know that we are going to have to be willing to be flexible in order to pull this off. That’s the spirit in which today’s announcement is being made.

CFL.ca: On a similar note, do you know how quickly we could see a revised schedule?

RA: In our meeting with the governor’s (on Tuesday), that led to (Wednesday’s) announcement we have a long laundry list of things that we promised the teams that we’re going to be doing next and one of them is that we will be starting the process of getting a schedule created. It’s going to take a little bit of time. It starts by getting stadium availability dates and working collaboratively with the teams. It is our hope that we’ll have some good news on a more specific schedule before too long.

CFL.ca: You’ve spoken a lot over the last year about the CFL’s need to have fans in the stadium. One hundred per cent capacity is always the ideal scenario, but is there a number or percentage of fans that you’re targeting for this season at this point?

RA: There is no one-size-fits-all solution because we don’t have a template for our stadiums.
For example, a certain percentage of fans in BC will lead to a different outcome than that same percentage of fans in Montreal. What we’ve committed to doing is working with each team, working with their local health authorities to understand what they might be prepared to do and then we’ll apply that to a matrix. That matrix will help us to make final decisions.

One of the things that’s really positive about the news we’re sharing is that our teams have agreed to be incredibly flexible. For example, we may send our teams in the East on the road early in the season to play in the West, where there is some reason to believe that there may be an earlier opportunity to get fans back in back in the stadiums.

We’re taking a day-by-day, issue-by-issue approach. But one thing that’s for sure is there is not a one-size-fits-all. On a positive note, our teams have committed to a highly collaborative partnership with one another to find a way to make this work. We’re going to have a CFL season and we’re going to work together to make that happen.

We’re excited about the idea of getting our players back on the field. We’re excited about getting our fans into the stadiums to celebrate this game of football that we all love so much.”

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie

CFL.ca: The idea of East teams spending time out West to start the season is interesting. Do you know how long those stays could be?

RA: We don’t know and that’s why that August 5 date was an important one for us. We’re hoping that we’re going to know a lot more by early June. Some of our stadiums, where we are the primary tenant, we have far greater flexibility. So we could put more games in some of our stadiums than we could with others who we share a tenancy with.

We’re going to put all of this into an ongoing effort to figure that out. We don’t have a specific answer today. But again, what I can report that is incredibly inspiring is just how collaborative our teams have been, how well-aligned our teams are to work together to make this happen. That is the basis for a big smile today and a lot of optimism that we can that we can make this happen.

CFL.ca: Are there any updates on your discussions with the XFL and is there a chance that they can factor into this 2021 season?

RA: Our discussions with the XFL have been very positive. What we’re focused on is really understanding what this opportunity might look like. If I back up from there, one of the things that I shared with an alumni group that I spoke with at their annual general meeting last night was what has become increasingly obvious to me is that the business of our league has never been as good as the players who play our game and the game itself.

What we’re looking at and what we’ve been working on on our own is improving our business model. We’ve made a lot of adjustments in the past number of months to make sure that we’ve got the best business model possible. The discussions with the XFL are really focused on that. How would working together help to improve the business model? When you get that answer, you have nearly an infinite list of possibilities on how you would make it work. What our fans really deserve and what our amateur football partners really deserve is a business that’s as good as our game. That’s what we’re working to deliver here.

We don’t have those answers today but we do know that we are working with world class people. Every time you are on a call with them, you are struck by how genuine, authentic, how sincere they are in trying to determine if there is an opportunity to do better, do better together in some form. That’s been the spirit of our discussion so far.

CFL.ca: This has been a process that’s been full of frustration for everyone involved. You’ve undoubtedly felt it this year as have the players and fans. Do you have a message to the players and fans as we fight through this third wave of the pandemic and as we try to get the CFL back on the field this summer?

RA: I’d start by saying to all of our fans and our players, we know this has been tough. It’s been hard on families. It’s been hard on our players and their families, it’s been hard on our fans and their families. Some of our fans and Canadian families have lost loved ones to the pandemic.

We have a business model that is far more reliant on fans in the stands than other leagues. While we have an amazing partner in TSN, the Canadian market hasn’t provided us with an opportunity for a TV deal that has allowed us to play without fans in the stands. Those are the realities that we face.

Today we are committed to playing in 2021 and we’re excited about the idea of getting our players back on the field. We’re excited about getting our fans into the stadiums to celebrate this game of football that we all love so much.

I’d like to tell all of our fans and all of our players that we are looking forward to welcoming everybody back in a safe and healthy way, welcoming them back into our world. Let’s get back to the business of playing football and entertaining Canadians because our game is important to this country. We know that. Today, I think there is room for optimism that we’ll be back on the field this year.

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