Canadian Football League: Commissioner Randy Ambrosie is Leading the Charge of Many Good Things to Come
It would be quite easy to surmise that life has come full circle for Randy Ambrosie, who is just finishing up his second successful season as commissioner of the Canadian Football League.
The 55-year-old Ambrosie was born in Winnipeg and played collegiate football with the University of Manitoba Bisons where he earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Upon completion of his studies Ambrosie was selected 2nd overall as an offensive lineman in the 1985 CFL draft by the Calgary Stampeders. Over the course of nine seasons he also played with the Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos, where he was part of a Grey Cup championship team in his final season in 1993. While still suiting up for the Eskimos, Ambrosie had taken over as the secretary of the Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA) in 1992, revealing his keen interest in the business aspect of the league.
Upon retiring as a player Ambrosie entered the corporate business world and now he’s back in sports again – albeit on the business end this time around. Ambrosie is the first Canadian-born CFL commissioner since Tom Wright stepped down in 2006, and the first to have played in the league since Larry Smith left the position in 1997.
“Interestingly enough I was in the financial business while I was playing,” recalls Ambrosie. “In 1987, I joined what at the time was Nesbitt Thomson as an investment advisor.”
It was invariably Ambrosie’s desire to leverage his playing career to create a foundation for his life after football and he did that from a young age by working in financial services. It was that kind of forethought that allowed him to accelerate much more rapidly into his business career.
Among some of the high-profile executive business positions on Ambrosie’s resume include: serving as the North American head of sales at HSBC Securities; head of sales and marketing at AGF Management; president of AGF Funds; and president and CEO of investment firm MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier.
“I’m so honored by the amazing things that I’ve had the pleasure to do in my career over the years but the foundation stones were laid at the CFL,” he acknowledges.
Having been a former football player himself, Ambrosie would seem to have an inherent advantage in dealing with players and understanding their position as it relates to the business side of the league. The commissioner knows first-hand how hard it is to be both an elite level athlete and a business executive so he is able to provide answers on both sides due to his many life experiences.
In addition to understanding players and owners, another key facet of the position of commissioner is being able to comprehend what the fans expect from the league. With a robust background in sales and marketing, Ambrosie recognizes the importance of building a brand. Traditional methods are still impactful but the advent of social media is a new communications realm that must be embraced to maximize the scope of reaching younger football fans.
“There is no doubt that social media and some of the newer marketing platforms are going to be critical,” agrees Ambrosie. “One of the things that I’ve come to realize, not just here at the CFL but in my past ventures, there is seldom one thing that it takes to drive the growth and success of a business. It’s almost always is a combination of many things and that requires a multi-dimensional way of thinking.”
For the first time in the history of the league’s 18-game regular season the CFL added a 21st week primarily as a means of providing players with more rest and recovery time, with the hope being that it will lead to less injuries and/or the ability to recover better. The league now runs from early June to mid-November with three bye weeks to give a bit more breathing room and time for players to rest and recover.
“It was a big player safety and health issue for us,” confirms Ambrosie.
In the earliest days of taking the commissioner’s job and visiting with coaches and players, Ambrosie specifically recalls visiting Ottawa and REDBLACKS’ coach Rick Campbell. Ambrosie has known the Campbell family for decades, having once played for Rick’s father Hugh Campbell in Edmonton. Ambrosie and Rick Campbell were discussing the REDBLACKS’ schedule and how they were playing three games in 15 days and how difficult it was for the players to be physically in peak form.
“This is one of those times where my personal experience as a player came through because I thought long and hard about it. I spoke to my wife and said I wasn’t sure that I could have played three games in 15 days and she laughed and said there was no way I could have done it,” he says.
“We’ve made several key moves on player safety that I’m quite proud about, but we’re still assessing what the outcome will be,” he continues.
The CFL has some preliminary statistics that are showing injuries have decreased. One of the reasons could be that the players are receiving more rest between games. Additional evidence will be gathered before any concrete decisions are made, but common sense would dictate that the more time the body has to recover from aches and pains the better it will be.
Whether the name is Johnny Manziel or an unknown player from a small, little-known college, the CFL makes it a priority to ensure all players are treated the same. Some players come into the league with a significant personal brand while others develop it during their time in the league.
“Look at Mike Reilly in Edmonton,” offers Ambrosie. “I don’t know that Mike came to the CFL with a household name, but today in this country in the game of football and the world of football Mike Riley is deserving of every of every ounce of the status he’s earned. There is also Bo Levi Mitchell and so many others who play this great game. You always want to profile players with a brand. The fans love our stars and we want to do everything we can to support and promote them.”
This is the 60th season of the CFL and 2018 marks the 106th Grey Cup championship. The 46-year disparity can be attributed to the fact that Lord Grey’s Cup originated with rugby. It’s an interesting historical evolution to the point where the league and the Cup finds itself today. In fact, the Grey Cup was first donated by Governor General Earl Grey in 1909 to the team winning the Senior Amateur Football Championship of Canada.
The CFL was formed in 1958 following the merger of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union founded in 1907 and the Western Interprovincial Football Union founded in 1936. The game of rugby was first played in Canada in the 1860s and it underwent a number of iterations to the point of it resembling the gridiron game we now know today.
“Our league is an important part of Canada and its history and culture,” says Ambrosie.
According to Ambrosie there is a responsibility on everyone who is a part of the CFL to ensure everything is done to grow the game and share it with existing fans while bringing in new fans as well. Strong television numbers confirm that the league is indeed attracting large viewership numbers, which in turn makes sponsors and advertisers extremely pleased.
“Not only are our overall ratings up overall, but we are up dramatically in the important 18-49 category,” says Ambrosie. “From my vantage point this league is destined to be bigger and stronger. We’ve got a great broadcast partner in TSN.”
Perhaps one aspect of the job that has surprised Ambrosie the most is just how public the role of commissioner would be and it’s something he’s enjoyed immensely. The responsibilities provide ample opportunities to visit stadiums and speak with owners, players and fans right across the country. In the business of football the commissioner’s job has all the complexities that any other CEO level job would entail – it just happens to revolve around a sports product.
“Being away from the game for quite a number of years I’ve been amazed at just how quickly I have found myself getting those same feelings back that I had as a player. There’s nothing like the excitement of sports. It creates an energy level that gets your motor running and brings about an undeniable energy,” says Ambrosie.
Prior to the discussion with Ambrosie he had just wrapped up a series of meetings with the Grey Cup organizing team and going through the complete schedule of events in Edmonton. Needless to say he feels much more at ease this year on his second go-around having last year’s experiences to reference.
“I was kind of facing a blind terror last year as we went through all of the things I’d have to do and I had no frame of reference,” laughs Ambrosie. “But now we fast forward to today and I’ve now got a much better feel for how busy the week will be.”
“I always look forward to seeing fans from coast to coast that gather for this national celebration,” continues Ambrosie. “It’s one of the greatest days on the Canadian calendar.”
The topic of CFL expansion is definitely on the table, but it has to make good business sense for the league. Followers of the league would love nothing more than to see a balanced east and west division, with five teams on each side. It’s a desire that will hopefully come to fruition in the not-too-distant future.
“We are right now in active conversations with a group that are determined to put a team in Halifax,” confirms Ambrosie, who feels that it is an unfinished piece of business for the CFL. He likens it to a national railway that doesn’t quite stretch from coast to coast.
“We need to lay down those last miles of track and having our league extend all the way with a team in Halifax,” he says.
From a business perspective, the CFL has had excellent support from Halifax Mayor Mike Savage and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
“I’m excited to see that project through. Obviously the big issue is building a stadium but the community seems excited and we’re happy to support the efforts of this group that are working on it. I think it would set the league on a path to a bigger future and I’m looking forward to seeing it come to fruition,” says the commissioner.
Ambrosie and his executive team are now well into the planning of what they are calling CFL 2.0, which has its roots in developing a much more international Canadian Football League. There are at least 30 countries in the world that are now playing competitive gridiron football. The game has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. To this point most all players have come from North America with very few exceptions. Ambrosie realizes there is an opportunity to welcome the rest of the world and for the league to be an aggregator of international talent.
“Our board of governors is excited by the idea of a bigger international Canadian Football League. Everywhere I turn I see opportunities to grow and build our game,” says Ambrosie
The CFL has initiated conversations with a group that are operating a professional football league in Mexico. Ambrosie was also recently in England and talked to the group that is running the British American Football Association. There is great football being played in Germany, Austria, France and Italy. Many of these countries and their leagues could potentially serve as farm systems with the best players graduating to play here to Canada.
Ambrosie is looking forward to bringing the best football players around from around the world and have them entertain fans of the CFL.
“I love going to work and being partners with all nine team presidents. And then, the governors who are amazing people who’ve had personal successes that would be the envy of anyone,” he says.
There are so many layers to this unfolding story and that’s the interesting part for Ambrosie. He revels in the opportunity to work with great people, sponsors, international companies and engaging with fans from across the country.
“We’ve had a very good year both on the field and off it, but what’s fascinating to me is the appetite that this board of governors have for us to take the league to new heights. They are a remarkable group to work with,” concludes Ambrosie. “The fans are excited about having a bigger, stronger league. As good as things are in 2018 everyone has high expectations for what we can accomplish in seasons to come.”