New CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie on business, football and Canadian cool

The 54-year-old Grey Cup winner sets out his stall for the CFL commissionership and explains why now could be an “opportunistic” moment to take Canadian football to a global audience.

New CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie on business, football and Canadian cool

Randy Ambrosie’s new life as commissioner of the Canadian Football League (CFL) didn’t get off the best of starts. Early on Monday morning, the 54-year-old former player from Winnipeg arrived at CFL headquarters in Toronto for his first day at the office only to find that he had forgotten his keys.

“I was locked out,” he says, speaking to SportsPro during a phone interview on Wednesday. “It was an inauspicious start.”

Nevertheless, Ambrosie eventually found his way into his new workplace and it wasn’t long before he was being made to feel at home. “I heard a little rustling outside my door and the entire headquarters staff had put a bunch of balloons that spelt ‘commish’ outside my office,” he recalls. “We had a team picture taken, so it’s been a good week so far.”

A football guy through and through, Ambrosie was drafted by the Calgary Stampeders in 1985 and went on to win the Grey Cup, the CFL’s championship game, as an offensive lineman for the Edmonton Eskimos in 1993. After hanging up his cleats, he served two years as secretary of the Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA) before a series of successful stints leading businesses in finance and investments.

Ambrosie’s appointment as the CFL’s 14th commissioner, approved by the league’s board of governors last week, saw him step into a role previously held by Jeffrey Orridge, the former executive director of CBC Sports who departed at the end of June after just over two years in the post.

Here, in one of his first interviews since taking the helm, Ambrosie sets out his stall for the CFL commissionership, assesses the commercial health of the league, and explains why now could be an “opportunistic” moment to take Canadian football to a global audience.

SP: How did your appointment come about and what particularly attracted you to the role?

RA: I had been the president and CEO of 3Macs over the last five years. We had gone through a transformational growth period and then my board of directors hypothesised that it was maybe time to look for a strategic partner and we found that in Raymond James.

That transaction, which may be one of the most successful in our industry’s history, was completed on 31st December and I said goodbye to my former colleagues. My wife and I were, frankly, just having some fun and enjoying some down time when Jeffrey Orridge stepped down.

That’s when I had a conversation, a very brief one, with Jim Lawson, the chairman of the board of governors. I’ve known Jim for some time and I’m a big fan of Jim’s. Then it went quiet for a while and during that time they had hired an executive search firm. I was contacted by them and I started the interview process.

I’m happy to say that, through a very thorough, very professionally done process, I was honoured to be chosen as the new commissioner of the CFL.

Being a former player and secretary of the CFLPA as well as a successful business leader, would you say you were the perfect candidate to head up the league?

One of the things that impressed me the most when I first met the search firm that was leading the process is they gave me the job spec that had been created. It was really written for a CEO leader and, you know, I actually went through an exercise where I took all of the qualifications and experiences that were in what they call their ideal profile and I laid my own experiences against those.

I wrote a report that I sent to the search firm and when I did that, they replied back that they had done almost exactly the same exercise and they had come to exactly the same conclusion. I was almost perfectly on profile, so I was very encouraged by that, but there were still a lot of steps to take in the process.

I’m going to take a thoughtful approach, one that’s going to be heavily loaded with respect for all of my partners and really try to come up with a plan that we can embrace.

How do you plan to draw upon your past experiences in this role as commissioner?

For me, the most important thing that I have learned and I’ve tried to do as an executive is to use listening as the most powerful tool. Because there is just a lot of value in asking questions and trying to understand people.

Obviously it’s easier for me to have an understanding of the players because I was one. I think I’ll have a very strong working relationship with the governors because I speak their language - I speak the language of business and fundamentally I’m a financial guy.

Being able to relate to them will help me to listen and understand and my goal is, over the course of the next number of months, to work with the teams, the players and the governors to build a strategy that we can all embrace together, and then set our sales to execute against that plan. I’m quite looking forward to that.

How would you assess what you’ve inherited, in terms of the commercial health of the league itself and the appetite for football in Canada in general?

I think the appetite for football is high - in fact, there’s fantastic statistics to bear that out. Right now I think the league is in very good shape but like any business, it’s got things that need to be improved on.

We’ve got some markets where we have to grow and expand our fanbase, but we’ve got the conditions in place. Toronto, as an example: we’ve got a fantastic ownership group with Bell and Larry Tanenbaum; we’ve got a wonderful stadium, BMO Field, a very fan-friendly stadium; and then we’ve got great management and coaching.

Those are three really fundamental pieces, plus we’ve got seven million people that live in the golden horseshoe. We can attract a good number of them to our game so I feel very good about that.

But, you know, reminding myself that it is a brick-by-brick exercise and you have to be methodical. But I know this group of partners will be patient as we go through the rebuilding and I’m looking forward to working with them.

Coming into the role, what do you perceive to be the biggest challenges facing the CFL?

Again, I’m going to spend a good portion of the next six to eight weeks just visiting with all of our partners and stakeholders, the teams. I’m going to do a lot of listening, ask a lot of questions, because there’s an old carpenter’s axiom that goes ‘measure twice and cut once’.

At the heart of that is really make sure what you’re going to do rather than just running down the hill and trying to do everything to start. I’m going to take a thoughtful approach, one that’s going to be heavily loaded with respect for all of my partners and really try to come up with a plan that we can embrace.

That’s my number one priority and it’s been the recipe that has worked for me repeatedly in my business life. I expect it’s going to work well here at the CFL as well.

What will be your approach to the commissionership? Will you look to be hands-on in all departments of the business?

That speaks to style and my approach has been to hire really good people who are experts in the important areas and then let them do their jobs, but be what I call hands-on, hands-off.

Hands-on means you have to be intellectually curious and very engaged and interested in what they’re working on because that just makes you a better, more supportive partner. But then you have to let them do what they’re hired to do.

I’m excited to say that I’ve inherited a wonderful team of people at CFL headquarters that I’m confident I can work with, that I can let them do this important work. That’s number one, but I’m also asking the teams what I can do personally to help them because I’d like to, wherever possible, play an active role and be someone who finds solutions to challenges.

Again, it’s a combination of being really involved but ultimately what I’ve been hired to do is be the CEO of the league, and that means you’ve got to spend time thinking and being strategic and I think I’ll have more than enough time for that.

The CFL is a Canadian brand first and foremost but, as you see it, how is the league and its brand of football perceived overseas? What needs to be done to expand the game’s reach in the international marketplace?

In some respects, if you look at global brands today, I don’t think anyone knows what IBM stands for, nobody in the US knows that TD stands for Toronto Dominion. That extends across to our brand, the CFL, which can go anywhere.

I think other countries can appreciate our brand of football but there’s actually another story here, and that is, I think in the world today Canada is very cool. I think Canada has emerged in a leadership role in the world because of our culture and our warm and welcoming nation.

I think there’s an opportunity to take Canadian football out into the world and have it embraced because we’re a nation that I think the world respects. It may just be that we’re at a perfect moment in time, almost that perfect storm where some expansion globally into new markets may be actually quite opportunistic because of the stature of Canada in the world today.

Ambrosie was speaking to SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long.