It's hard to get excited about CFL future when all you see is its past
For once, Randy Ambrosie would like to tell a different story when he comes to Vancouver: a story in which the dusty old CFL reinvents itself as football’s pre-eminent global league; a story in which players from all over the world suit up for CFL teams and a massive global audience watches CFL games.
This is the key to the Canadian game’s glorious new future and Ambrosie, the league’s commissioner, is enthusiastic about this vision. Actually, he’s been enthusiastic about CFL 2.0 since it was first introduced three years ago and little has happened since to dampen his conviction.
“The 2.0 strategy is entirely about making it clear we’re going to be global and there’s room in the CFL family for everyone,” he said Monday. “You have to set a new tone. We’ve been the same thing for a long time.”
There’s just one problem. The B.C. Lions are still that same thing and it’s hard to talk about CFL 2.0 when CFL 1.0 is all anybody sees in this province.
On Monday, Ambrosie made his third straight off-season trip to Vancouver since taking over the big office and, for the third straight time, his sales pitch was high-jacked by the melodrama over the Lions’ sale and the team’s off-field issues. The former offensive lineman wanted to talk about the 10 different scouting combines the CFL will have hosted this winter on four different continents. He wanted to talk about the 24 best international recruits who have already been invited to the CFL combine in Toronto at the end of March, including Japanese running back Taku Lee, a player Ambrosie said is made for the CFL.
He wanted, in short, to tell Lions’ supporters that a new day is coming for the CFL and it will change the Canadian game as we know it. But, in this market, that message is a tough sell. In this market, all we know is that the Lions have been for sale forever, they’ve alienated their fan base and neither situation appears close to resolution.
“I think (Lions owner David Braley) is committed to putting this team in a new set of hands,” said Ambrosie. “I’ve been very encouraged about my time with David.”
Great. So could a sale be imminent?
“It’s so difficult. As soon as you put an artificial timeline, you put unnecessary pressure on this,” Ambrosie said.
Figured as much.
On Monday, Ambrosie and Lions president Rick LeLacheur painted a picture in which several parties are interested in buying the Lions, but Braley won’t sell unless he has full confidence that the new owners are committed to the league and the market. A local group led by insurance man Mark Woodall and car-dealer Moray Keith — who were certainly committed to the Leos and the CFL — tried unsuccessfully to buy the Lions on more than one occasion and eventually grew frustrated by the drawn-out process.
They dropped out last fall. As for fresh blood, Braley’s health, which has been a continuing concern, further slowed things over the last couple of months, leaving the Lions in the same state of limbo they have occupied for over a decade.
“I really thought we’d get it done last year,” said LeLacheur, before adding. “Nothing’s really happened the last two months. We’ve got three or four guys. We’ve got a guy who wants to do it at the end of this season. We’ll see what happens.”
In the meantime, Lions’ season-ticket sales have flatlined at about 9,000 and there’s little to suggest the 2020 season will be different than last year or the year before when the Leos struggled mightily at the gate. It would help if they get off to a quick start under new coach Rick Campbell.
But it’s going to take a long time to win back all the fans the Lions have lost since the 2011 Grey Cup, even if Ambrosie said the Leos aren’t alone in their fight.
“The entire nature of our league is to think differently than it did five years ago,” said Ambrosie. “Five years ago the B.C. Lions might have been on an island. We’re not thinking about it that way anymore. We have a lot of resources at the league office. This franchise can have a lot of people helping from around the league. It’s a team effort. There are more than enough resources to make this happen while David decides on the team’s future.”
Then there’s the league’s future. The CFL has invested heavily in this newly imagined league promoted by Ambrosie. Maybe they didn’t have a choice in the matter. Maybe they had to plot a bold new course to have any chance at survival.
There is, after all, much about 2.0 that is intriguing. But in the here-and-now this new league is facing the same old problems and it’s hard to get excited about its future when all you see is its past.
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