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CFL commissioner Ambrosie can finally concentrate on football to open 2023 season

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie speaks to media in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' stadium Tuesday, March 14, 2023. For the first time in a while, the CFL commissioner can concentrate solely on the start of a regular season and not the immediate future of one of its franchises. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

TORONTO — It's a welcomed change for Randy Ambrosie.

For the first time in a while, the CFL commissioner can concentrate solely on the start of a regular season and not the immediate future of one of its franchises. In fact, with the sale of the Montreal Alouettes in March to businessman Pierre Karl Peladeau, the league seems to be on very solid ground given the quality of its nine ownership groups.

What's more, the CFL and its players are in the second season of a seven-year collective bargaining agreement. And the league enters the first year of its American television deal with CBS Sports Network.

The CFL's broadcast agreement with TSN and RDS — reportedly worth $50 million annually — runs through the 2026 season.

"My strongest feeling is just how excited I am about what's in front of us," Ambrosie said. "Everywhere I look, I see positive and I'm excited."

The 2023 season opens Thursday night with the B.C. Lions visiting the Calgary Stampeders.

But despite Ambrosie's optimism there are concerns, most notably attendance. And that's important as ticket sales account for a significant portion of a CFL franchise's overall revenue.

According to the league, it averaged 21,792 spectators per game last season, down from 22,917 in 2019 before the global pandemic hit and forced the cancellation of the 2020 season.

Winnipeg averaged a CFL-high 28,641 fans per game, the first time it led the league in attendance. That helped the community-owned franchise post a $4.9-million profit in 2022.

Saskatchewan, another community-owned franchise, reported a $3.9-million profit last season despite the Riders (6-12) missing the CFL playoffs while hosting the Grey Cup game. The club's average attendance was 27,431 but that's down from 30,723 in 2019 and 32,762 in 2017 when it moved into new Mosaic Stadium.

The Edmonton Elks, the CFL's third community-owned club, averaged 23,787 spectators last year and registered a $3.3-million operating loss. It's the fourth straight season the franchise has operated in a deficit.

Edmonton, which averaged a league-high 31,517 fans in 2015, has dropped a CFL-record 17 straight games at Commonwealth Stadium.

The CFL has also traditionally struggled to generate consistent interest in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The good news, though, is B.C. averaged 20,387 spectators last season, a testament to the efforts of new Lions owner Amar Doman.

Montreal averaged 17,683 spectators last season but the arrival of Peladeau — who said his purchase of the Alouettes was out of love and not a business transaction — should at least buy the franchise time to work on reversing those fortunes.

And then there's Toronto, which averaged 11,874 spectators last season despite a second straight first-place finish in the East Division en route to a Grey Cup championship.

But another challenge CFL officials had to deal with this off-season was both the XFL and USFL operating south of the border. Each circuit attracted some CFL players, most notably quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who joined the USFL's New Orleans Breakers after helping Toronto earn its Grey Cup victory.

"We certainly have watched, we've been paying attention to what they're doing," Ambrosie said. "But candidly, our energy and focus across the board is and has been on building our future.

"The level of talent (in CFL) is remarkably high and I think in all three categories (Canadian, American, global) we're seeing it. We maybe have to look for them in different places but with over 800 universities playing college football in the U.S., the future is bright for talent. We will always pay attention to what's going on in the football world but we feel very good about our own future."

On Sunday, Edmonton opens its season hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders looking to end its dubious home losing streak. The franchise's last regular-season victory at Commonwealth Stadium was a 19-6 decision over B.C. on Oct. 12, 2019.

B.C. embarks on the 2023 campaign without quarterback Nathan Rourke of Victoria. The CFL's outstanding Canadian last season signed this off-season with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars so the Lions will have Vernon Adams Jr. under centre and backed up by former Hamilton starter Dane Evans.

But B.C. won't be the only CFL team opening the season with a different starter. At least seven clubs will start the year with a new quarterback, including Hamilton (Bo Levi Mitchell), Calgary (Jake Maier), Saskatchewan (Trevor Harris), Toronto (Chad Kelly) and Montreal (Cody Fajardo).

And that could become eight if Jeremiah Masoli, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2022, can't start for Ottawa on Saturday when it visits Montreal.

Ottawa and Montreal will both have new head coaches. Canadian Bob Dyce begins his first full season with the Redblacks — he took over interim duties last year after Paul LaPolice was fired — while Jason Maas took over the Alouettes job from GM Danny Maciocia, who served on an interim basis after Khari Jones was let go,

Maas served as Saskatchewan's offensive co-ordinator last season but had previously served as Edmonton's head coach (2016-19).

The 2023 season culminates Nov. 19 with the Grey Cup game at Tim Hortons Field, the second time since 2021 the contest will be played there. Hamilton is chasing its first CFL title since 1999 and dropped the 2021 game 33-25 in overtime to Winnipeg.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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