HAMILTON – For the first time in more than two years, commissioner Randy Ambrosie took centre stage to provide a state of the union address on the Canadian Football League.
In what is usually an annual event every Grey Cup week — but was skipped in 2020 when the CFL shut down the season owing to the COVID-19 pandemic — Ambrosie spoke for more than an hour, beginning with his own often-rosy interpretation of the current health of professional three-down football.
Ambrosie used a significant part of his opening remarks to gleefully announce a new partnership with Genius Sports. Genius Sports, which hit the New York Stock Exchange Friday under the name GENI, is expected to provide the CFL with an improved marketing plan — particularly when it comes to creating a greater international presence — and is heavily involved with sports betting.
The event wrapped up with a chance for reporters from around the country to ask Ambrosie questions, covering a wide range of topics that have affected the league. Here are some of the highlights and analysis from the day.
1) Let's start with Genius Sports. While it seems like a forward-thinking move — especially when it comes to marketing, which the CFL has struggled with for years — it's still unclear what exactly the relationship means. Ambrosie couldn't expand on the partnership, other than to say Genius Sports will have an equity stake in the league and much of its investment will be through services, notably technology.
2) Ambrosie also stayed quiet on Genius Sports and the role they'll have in pushing gambling to the forefront of the CFL. I'm going to need more information on this before making any kind of definitive statements, but a lack of transparency doesn't help ease any ethical concerns that come with bombarding fans with betting options.
3) The CFL's business model has changed dramatically, with the league committing to revenue-sharing among its nine teams. This is being viewed as a win for the CFL, and is supported by the CFLPA, but the lack of details once again leaves many more questions than answers.
4) On the topic of revenue sharing, I'm not sure profitable teams such as Winnipeg and Saskatchewan will want to cut a cheque to a Toronto club backed by billionaire owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). The immediate goal is to get every team to collectively break-even but that likely won't happen for several years.
5) When asked if he had a commitment from all nine teams to play in 2022, it was concerning that Ambrosie couldn't provide a definitive yes. Instead, he spoke around the question, saying right now he has nine teams and a plan for next season and has no reason to suggest it will be anything but a "resounding success."
6) The commissioner did acknowledge there are two teams — Toronto and Montreal — that still need some work. This is nothing new, as interest remains low in both markets and attendance continues to steadily dip, especially with the Argonauts, who posted record-low numbers in 2021.
7) When it came to the breach in health protocols by Toronto quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who last week attended an NBA Raptors game despite players not being permitted to attend large-scale events, Ambrosie said the CFL didn't change the rules by altering the length of his required quarantine from four days to two so he could play in the Eastern final. He said the league has a clause that gives power to the CFL's health experts to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. That's all fine and good — I believe Bethel-Thompson should have been able to play — but his answer seemed to undermine his earlier statement that the CFL has the strictest COVID-19 protocols in all pro sports and ignored the fact it was a clear violation and that no one at MLSE or the Argonauts seemed to know that.
8) The commissioner viewed the indefinite suspension of Argonauts VP of player personnel John Murphy and the ongoing investigation into the matter as the appropriate response from the league. What didn't sit right, though, was that despite Ambrosie condemning Murphy's actions, he claimed these types of matters are better served to be dealt with in-house, like a family. Murphy was caught on video swinging at a fan, putting his hands on a woman and appeared to utter a homophobic slur. The incident was all out in the open and so, too, should the outcomes of the investigation.
9) The entertainment value of the CFL game has been under siege this season, with scoring way down from previous years. Ambrosie just went on about anything other than what he was asked about it, suggesting changes to the business model will lead to a better future.
10) Speaking to general managers and coaches around the CFL, several point to the league's football operations salary cap – which was reduced from $2.59 million down to $2 million in 2021 — and how it makes it harder to attract talented coaches for the main reason play in the league is suffering. Ambrosie spoke about fiscal discipline and running a good business, which tells me the cap isn't growing anytime soon.
11) On the topic of COVID-19 vaccinations and the push to make them mandatory for players in 2022, Ambrosie said while he will discuss the matter with the CFLPA, he believes much of it will be mandated based on the current policies of the federal government. This could end up being a contentious topic with the CFLPA, despite 95 per cent of players from 2021 being fully vaccinated.
12) Speaking of the CFLPA, its relationship with the league is fragile at the moment and with a new collective bargaining agreement needed for 2022, it won't be a quiet off-season. The hope is they can work together like they did in 2021 to put on a season, and not 2020, when tensions were at an all-time high and the result was a lost year.
13) Players took a massive hit to the pocketbook in 2021, with teams spending closer to the salary cap floor and with contracts pro-rated over a decreased 14-game regular season. Ambrosie said they need to find a formula that's win-win, noting when the CFL is doing better as a business the players should be benefactors from that, too.
14) Finally, Ambrosie was asked about the CFL 2.0 initiative and whether years of signing agreements with football leagues across the globe had led to any increased revenue. The commissioner admitted it hasn't yielded the returns he had hoped for at this point. But with COVID-19 shutting the entire 2020 season down, he added it was incredibly tough to make any notable progress, though they remain committed to staying the course.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.