TORONTO — It remains the CFL’s most contentious issue, but commissioner Randy Ambrosie feels the league is close to resolving the Montreal Alouettes’ ownership situation.
The CFL took over the franchise from American businessman Robert Wetenhall on May 31. Wetenhall and the league spent months looking for a new owner before the move and the process has continued since.
Many potential owners have been mentioned.
Former Alouettes player Eric Lapointe stated often he could assemble an ownership group if approached but questions exist whether he was ever contacted. Montreal businessman Clifford Starke publicly stated his intention to buy the club — he even amended his original offer then added Lapointe to his group — but ultimately withdrew the proposal.
Montreal entrepreneur Vince Guzzo was reportedly interested but put that on hold. Then came word the league was negotiating with Montreal natives Peter and Jeff Lenkov, with the California-based brothers even attending two Alouettes games.
Yet a “For Sale” sign remains on the franchise. In a wide-ranging interview, Ambrosie said the league is negotiating with three potential ownership groups — again Ambrosie didn’t provide specifics — and remains hopeful a resolution can be reached soon.
“I’ve tried to stay away from (specific timeline for sale) just because I don’t want to end up disappointing people,” Ambrosie said. “Look, we’re about to start September and you’d kind of hope by the time the month of September is done we’d have this resolved.
“I’m optimistic we can hit that deadline and that’s what we’re working towards. But what I love about the board of governors is they’re encouraging me to get it right, not to get it fast … so I feel encouraged that I’m not dealing with an artificial time pressure but only with the pressure to make sure the group I bring to the table to recommend as owner is the right one.”
Montreal’s ownership situation isn’t the only challenge the CFL has faced as it approaches the Labour Day weekend, the unofficial midway point of the regular season. Others include:
— The B.C. Lions also being for sale.
— The CFL’s average attendance being under 23,000 per game, with Toronto, B.C., and Montreal all averaging less than 20,000 spectators.
— Seven of the nine opening-day starting quarterbacks missing time with injury.
— Two suspensions following positive drug tests, the latest to Winnipeg star running back Andrew Harris.
— The CFL awarding the Saskatchewan a shortened road win in the third quarter due to weather.
— A dip in CFL ratings in the final season of its TV deal.
These all preceded sometimes contentious bargaining between the CFL and CFL Players’ Association. A three-year deal was reached to ensure training camps and the regular season both began on time but Ambrosie said the process was draining.
“Just the draw of energy the CBA negotiations take away from our game and I felt that all winter,” he said. “You feel the burden, which I think the players feel as well.
“We all want this to be big, strong and successful but I think we all kind of share in that energy drain that’s inherent to the CBA.”
A CFL source says a big part of the Alouettes negotiation surrounds Montreal’s financial picture. The franchise has reportedly lost $50 million since Wetenhall arrived in ‘97, including $25 million the past three seasons and a whopping $12.5 million last year.
But Ambrosie said Montreal’s on-field improvement has enhanced the situation. After missing the playoffs the last four years with a combined 21-51 record , the Alouettes (5-4) are second in the East Division.
Lions president Rick LeLacheur doesn’t have that luxury as he seeks a buyer for owner David Braley. Despite hiring DeVone Claybrooks as head coach and signing quarterback Mike Reilly this off-season, B.C. (1-9) is last in the West Division.
Ambrosie plans to be in B.C. next month and meet with “multiple groups” that are interested in the franchise.
Not surprisingly, B.C.’s attendance is lagging (18,196 through four home dates) and below the league average (22,784). So are the Alouettes (17,222) but they’re 2-2 at home and coming off exciting road victories over Calgary and Toronto.
It’s hard to determine Toronto’s average attendance because it doesn’t always provide it. The highest recorded home gathering for the Argos (1-8) was 16,734 for a 64-14 loss to Hamilton on June 22.
Fortunately for the CFL, the Saskatchewan (6-3)-Winnipeg (8-2) game Sunday in Regina and the Toronto-Hamilton (8-2) matchup Monday at Tim Hortons Field are both sellouts.
“It (attendance) is one of the things we talk about the most but not just in the context of our league but what’s going on in pro sports,” Ambrosie said. “We’re facing this challenge in sport and that’s how do we attract the casual fan, how do we create a value proposition for them?
“But just look at this coming weekend. We’ve got sellouts in Hamilton and Regina and I expect a great crowd. if not close to a sellout, in Calgary. We feel very good about where we’re going and there are some positive signs on the horizon.”
Another concern is the CFL’s television numbers. Games are averaging 482,000 viewers, a nine per cent drop, in the final year of the deal with TSN.
But TSN has seen an increase in CFL viewing across its digital platforms. Streaming video starts for games are up 25 per cent while those by TSN Direct subscribers have increased 52 per cent.
The league continues to drive strong engagement on TSN’s social media platforms. There’s been over seven million impressions on the broadcaster’s CFL content and more than two million views of league videos on its Instagram account.
“It (TV deal) has been under discussion,” Ambrosie said. “I think we’ll have something very positive to say on that before too long.”
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell returns to Calgary’s lineup Monday when the Stampeders (5-4) host arch-rival Edmonton (6-4). Last year’s CFL and Grey Cup MVP was on the six-game injured list (torn pectoral muscle) and topped the list of seven opening-day starters who missed time with injury.
Only Reilly and Edmonton’s Trevor Harris have started all of their team’s games. That’s allowed backups like Calgary’s Nick Arbuckle, Saskatchewan’s Cody Fajardo, Montreal’s Vernon Adams Jr. and Toronto’s McLeod Bethel-Thompson to shine.
“We’re working hard to try to find ways to make the game as safe as we can for all of our players, including quarterbacks,” Ambrosie said. “But it also speaks to the issue that injuries always result in giving somebody else a chance to make their mark on the game.
“Sports will never eradicate injuries. But we must do everything we can to make the game as safe possible because our fans want our best players to play.”
The CFL irked many Aug. 9 when it awarded Saskatchewan a 17-10 road win in Montreal just an hour after lightening halted third-quarter action. The weather protocol was part of the new CBA and will be revisited at season’s end.
“There’s no room inside the current CBA for there to be a judgement call,” Ambrosie said. “We did a poor job of communicating this and we need to do that better.
“Our partners needed to have a better understanding of how that rule worked. We’ve got to make sure things negotiated inside of the CBA are better communicated and everyone has a chance to understand how it’s all supposed to work.”
Ambrosie said the league met recently with Japanese football officials and Japan will be the latest country to join the CFL 2.0 venture. And Ambrosie expects an exciting second-half run leading up to the Grey Cup game in Calgary.
“We have much work to do but I’m more convinced than ever that we’re on the way to a CFL unlike any CFL in our history if we stay focused on our plan and work hard,” he said. “Hopefully we can put the Montreal ownership issue to rest soon, we’ve opened up a new and very positive conversation with the CFLPA about how we work with them and we’re working with our international partners.
“There are many reasons for me to see the Labour Day weekend as an opportunity to look forward to the second half because many good things will happen.”