CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie says it's time for league to be bold

Approaching the one-year anniversary in the role of CFL commissioner, Winnipeg's Randy Ambrosie reflects on what he's learned and the challenges ahead.

Expansion to Atlantic Canada would be 'last line of track' to its national dream

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie talks with CBC Sports about the league's current status

3 years ago
CBC Sports' Devin Heroux goes one-on-one with CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie covering a range of topics including his experience so far, the process of allowing Johnny Manziel to play and expansion to Atlantic Canada. 5:19

Randy Ambrosie is just weeks away from completing his first full year as the commissioner of the Canadian Football League. 

As a former player, the 55-year-old Winnipeg native is certainly familiar with the league, but in his new role he spent much of the off-season traveling across the country, seeking input from fans, players, owners and sponsors.

With the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos set to kick off the league's 60th season Thursday, CBC Sports sat down with Ambrosie to get his thoughts on his first year and the work ahead.

CBC Sports: It's been less than a year as commissioner, but what has this experience been like so far? 
Randy Ambrosie: "It's an amazing job. It's unlike anything I've ever done before. I'm still learning, but I'm surrounded by an amazing group of governors, all of whom are successful people. You could take a lesson from what they've achieved. My own staff are tireless and passionate about the game. I'm surrounded by smart, passionate people. I grew up with the CFL. I remember going to Bomber training camps and one my proudest moments as young teenager was having my own season ticket. If you've been an observer of league our history of inclusion is exactly who we are. I was talking with the Prime Minister at last year's Grey Cup and told him what makes this league so powerful is it's authentic. It's exactly who we are. And you could go across this great country and see players who came here who might not have been able to get a job elsewhere."

CBC Sports: What was your focus when you started this job?
Randy Ambrosie: "I wanted to be a great listener. I grew up in a family with three brothers, my mom and dad. My mom was a remarkable woman. I would say my mom was an extraordinary woman who lived an ordinary life. She loved people and made time for people. She was a great listener. She's gone now and one of the things I miss most is being able to pick up the phone and calling her and talk to her. She just listened. I like that part of our upbringing. And I think subconsciously this job allows me to honour what my mom stood for. I get to be around great people, great fans, and listen. We've listened to the players and talked to them seriously about making the game safer. All of these people have contributed to the game. If I can be humble and recognize my own roots I have a much better chance to be successful."

Ambrosie spent a good portion of the off-season on a cross-Canada listening tour. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

CBC Sports: How do you feel about the NFL anthem policy and what is the CFL's stance?
Randy Ambrosie: "I would want to say I'm honestly open to hearing different points of view. I would like to think there's an opportunity for all of us. If I were to make an observation about what's going wrong in the world today it's that people have stopped listening. They're so busy articulating their point of view. While I feel very comfortable in our position I would say to people, if you aren't, talk to me. Let's have a conversation and respect one another. The civility that has made Western civilization so powerful is frayed around the edges today I believe in part because we've stopped listening to one another."

CBC Sports: Is getting people to attend games a challenge today?
Randy Ambrosie: "It is and yet the flip side of that is the opportunity it creates. The stadiums should be cathedrals. They should be places Canadians come to feel more Canadian. To be sitting next to your neighbour. To celebrate all that makes us great together. I love watching the games on TV, but I think there's nothing like sitting in the stands on a warm summer night or sunny fall afternoon. It's the feeling you get when you're surrounded by other fans. We need to welcome people into our stadiums. I think one of the things we need to do is actually make the invitation. We have to say to Canadians who might not have attended a game before to come and watch. This year we're doing a concert series on Thursday nights. We're going to have a family day. Family has been a big part of our league's success. Let's make our stadiums a celebration of family and inclusion. We're going to do a diversity series and honour the history our league has had that runs entirely parallel to what it means to be Canadian."

CBC Sports: Walk us through the process of allowing Johnny Manziel to play?
Randy Ambrosie: "What was important to me is that this is not a football issue. This has complicated issues and nuance so what we did was bring experts to the table. We listened a lot. Asked a lot of questions and tried our best to understand his situation. And the final question we asked was what do we have to do to get this right? I am very proud that our shift in mindset around relying on external experts away from the game of football helped us to make a better decisions and hopefully one that sets a person on a path to having a great life. And if the attention that player is getting is good, what I think is the best part is all those eyes that came to watch one player will see how great our game is."

Johnny Manziel signs autographs for fans in Hamilton. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

CBC Sports: What groups did you reach out to in making the Manziel decision?
Randy Ambrosie: "Our friends at Violence Against Women were paramount. People from the medical community. There were issues we needed to understand from a medical sciences point of view. It was an amalgam of different voices. We asked them what we needed to do to get this right. And then we tried to be very methodical in making sure that the ideas and issues we needed to understand we were evaluating through an experts point of view and it led us to where we go to where we are today.

CBC Sports: How much would you want the CFL to be a place that provides people a second chance?
Randy Ambrosie: "It's an interesting question and one that has come complications. Do I think this is a league everyone deserves to play in? I don't. I think you should have to earn the right to play this great game. I don't think you should give out a free pass to anyone to play. But I think in a case where we can through a healthy process and make sure someone is doing the right things and working hard to be the kind of person we would want living in our communities and playing our game, when someone is willing to make that effort and demonstrate on an ongoing basis those efforts are being made, those people I think we should have time for. That way we can say we're doing the right thing for the football player but the right things for Canadians as well."

CBC Sports: Where does expansion to Atlantic Canada stand?
Randy Ambrosie: "What I have made a commitment to is that we will be thorough, thoughtful and professional. We can't miss a step. We're working with the Maritime Football Group methodically. I think that will lead us to the right place. The million-dollar question in all of this is a stadium. I've liked this idea because I believe Atlantic Canadians are a remarkable part of the Canadian fabric. I think a facility in Atlantic Canada that will not only allow them to play football but host college sports, attract events to that great region and share what is all too often a bit of secret about how amazing the people are. What I was heartened by meeting [Premier Brian Gallant] and members of his team is that they're thinking about it as a regional opportunity. There was a selflessness to their perspective. The optimist in me believes we can see a team there but we just have to work our way through this process."

Ambrosie thinks a team in Atlantic Canada is the final piece of the puzzle for the CFL. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

CBC Sports: How much would it mean to you to have a team there?
Randy Ambrosie: "It's like building a national railway and if you don't have the tracks from one coast to the other do you have a national railway? I don't think so. That's a defining thing that made Canada, Canada. I think to fully complete the Canadian Football League we have to lay that last line of track. We have to get that 10th team in Atlantic Canada."

CBC Sports: What do you hear from the fans the most?
Randy Ambrosie: "They love the game. Any conversations with a CFL fan, though, has to include officiating. I think it's like a birthright. They want to share their passion. It's why I like walking through stadium. They love our great game. The time for this humble church mouse idea about our league has to come to an end. It's time to be bold. It's our time to be bigger and stronger and for our values to be expressed more clearly and shared. I think we've done a good job of that and that we're on the cusp of doing more. Canada and the Canadian Football League are one in the same."


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