CFL unveils new growth partnership at 1st state-of-the-league address since 2019

Commissioner Randy Ambrosie unveiled the CFL's new partnership with Genius Sports in his first state-of-the-league address in two years.

Commissioner Randy Ambrosie says pandemic forced league to revamp business model

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie delivers his state of the league media address at the Hamilton Convention Centre during the CFL's Grey Cup week in Hamilton on Friday. (Nick Iwanyshyn/Canadian Press)

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was again long on optimism and short on specifics Friday in his first state-of-the-league address since 2019.

The CFL didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple sources have consistently said that cost the league between $60 and $80 million.

The CFL resumed in 2021 with a condensed 14-game regular-season schedule. Play ends Sunday with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats meeting in the Grey Cup at a sold-out Tim Hortons Field.

It's a rematch of the '19 final, which Winnipeg won 33-12.

"Winston Churchill says, 'Never waste a crisis,' and I'm happy to say we didn't," Ambrosie said. "I'm not going to tell you we've been able to fix everything.

"I'm not going to suggest we don't have challenges on the horizon. We do. I want to say, frankly, we did a lot of the heavy lifting that was long overdue."

While Ambrosie spoke Friday the CFL announced a long-term partnership with Genius Sports, a data, technology and commercial company that connects sports, betting and media. On its website, Genius Sports states it has partnerships with over 400 sports organizations, including the NFL, English Premier League, NCAA, NASCAR, and PGA Tour.

Ambrosie gushed about the partnership's potential for the CFL, citing fast growth and a broadened reach for the league in existing and new markets. But again, he was short on specifics, saying most of Genius Sports' investment is technological.

Sports betting in Canada

Ambrosie said a big impetus of the deal was the legalization of single-game sports betting in Canada. When asked how much wagering money the CFL could receive, Ambrosie stated: "We've done some early-stage forecasting that I won't share with you, that we won't share publicly. But it's an exciting opportunity."

He also stated the pandemic forced the CFL and its teams to refine their business models, including the adoption of revenue sharing among the clubs. Again, Ambrosie didn't provide details, saying only the move was widely accepted across the league.

That was an interesting comment. It's hard to imagine officials with the CFL's three community-owned teams - Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and Edmonton, which traditionally have been the most profitable - being happy supporting franchises owned by wealthy individuals or ownership groups.

"I think now we've created an environment, we've created a philosophy that all teams can and should, if they do most of the right things, be able to break even," Ambrosie said. "Now, it's going to take a little bit more work.

"But at the heart of the philosophy is we want all teams to be able to break even if they do some, most, if not all the right things. We're going to hold each other accountable to that standard."

The Toronto Argonauts, owned by Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, averaged just 8,603 fans per game during the regular season but drew over 21,000 for their 27-19 East Division final home loss to Hamilton last weekend. Still, the franchise is expected to lose around $12 million, making a break-even prospect in the league's biggest market a very tall order.

Not that MLSE can't afford it. The organization also owns the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, NBA's Toronto Raptors and MLS's Toronto FC, among other entities.

WATCH | Ticats fans clash with Argos players post-game:

Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans clash with Toronto Argonauts players

7 months ago
Duration 2:06
Investigations are underway after some Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans clashed with several Toronto Argonauts players following Sunday’s CFL eastern division final, which the Tiger-Cats won.

Argos make headlines for wrong reasons

Toronto also made headlines for all the wrong reasons before and after Sunday's game.

On Dec. 2, starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson, linebacker Dexter McCoil Sr., and defensive back Jeff Richards were among five Argos players who attended a Toronto Raptors' home game. That violated the CFL's COVID-19 protocols and all five were sent home by the club the following day.

Normally, the players would have to quarantine for four days and provide two negative tests before being able to resume team activities. But the CFL announced the five could return if they quarantined for 48 hours and provided three negative tests.

Bethel-Thompson, McCoil and Richards all successfully completed the protocols and played. The other two, rush end Charleston Hughes and Canadian receiver Llevi Noel, were on the injured list and didn't dress.

Following Sunday's game, some Argos players and vice-president of player personnel John Murphy clashed with fans. The CFL suspended Murphy indefinitely Wednesday and Ambrosie said both the league and MLSE continue to investigate the matter.

"We can't have that ... we have to be a beacon for tolerance, not intolerance," Ambosie said. "We can't stand that type of thing happening.

"We deal with our business in the family and we will."

Ambrosie stated the CFL didn't change its COVID-19 protocols for Toronto. He added the league decided at the start of the season it would allow its medical personnel to "assess those situations on a case-by-case basis."

"We don't let a guy who got a C in Grade 9 science make those decisions," Ambrosie said. "We didn't change the policy, we let the doctors do what we had decided we would let them do at the very beginning of the season."

The CFL encouraged players to get vaccinated and implemented a policy that would apply to game cancellations caused by COVID-19 issues involving teams that didn't reach the vaccination threshold of 85 per cent. Game forfeits and lost pay were potential consequences.

In October, the league announced eight teams reached the 85-per cent level and figured 93 per cent of players would have been fully vaccinated by Oct. 31. The league had only one major COVID-19 outbreak that forced the rescheduling of a regular-season game.

"One of our core principles was we needed to get our players vaccinated, we needed to get our football operations vaccinated," Ambrosie said. "We're not going to stray from that, we believe that is in fact the right thing to do.

"Some of the answer will be decided by government policy. Part of the answer has to be formed in a conversation with our players and our players' association. A lot of the story about the future for vaccination status is going to be written in the months to come and we want to be a leader ... because it's the best way to keep people safe and healthy and keep our athletes on the field."

The CFL's return to play hasn't been fully embraced by fans. The average attendance this year was just 19,164, down from 22,917 two years ago and 27,767 from back in 2011.

Many have complained the level of play has fallen off. This year, Winnipeg (23 offensive points per game) was the top-scoring team and the Montreal Alouettes (371.8 yards per game) boasted the top-gaining offence.

In 2019, Hamilton led the CFL in scoring (26.1 points per game) and offence (393.7 yards per game). Ambrosie said the league is looking at ways to speed games up.

"In a world where time pressure seems to be a constant theme, the question is, 'Do we need to make our game faster?" Ambrosie said. "It's the general question, 'How do we keep moving our game forward?

"How do we make our game more entertaining? Faster, I think is a theme we're looking for."

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