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CFL commissioner Ambrosie testifies before Ontario committee on finance

TORONTO — Commissioner Randy Ambrosie was scheduled to spend much of Thursday speaking with federal and provincial politicians about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the CFL.

TORONTO — Commissioner Randy Ambrosie was scheduled to spend much of Thursday speaking with federal and provincial politicians about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the CFL.

Ambrosie was among three individuals to speak via videoconference before an Ontario standing committee on finance and economic affairs Thursday morning. During his presentation, Ambrosie said he was scheduled to participate in another meeting Thursday evening involving Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault and provincial sports ministers.

"I'm hopeful . . . one of the conversations we'll have is how do we all work together," Ambrosie said in response to a question from Liberal MPP Amanda Simard (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell). "How do we make this not just a federal government situation but one all of us are sharing together and looking for a solution that we can all bring together as true partners."

In April, the CFL asked the federal government for up to $150 million in assistance as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak. The proposal included $30 million immediately and up to another $120 million in the event of a lost 2020 campaign.

Ambrosie has stated the earliest the CFL would begin an abbreviated '20 season is sometime in September. But he also reiterated Thursday a cancelled campaign remains an option.

"We know COVID-19 has affected almost every business in some way, and we sympathize with our fellow Ontarians and Canadians," Ambrosie said in his opening statement. "For us at the CFL, it’s hard to imagine many businesses that have been affected more directly or for whom the negative impact may be more long lasting.

"We totally support government and public health officials as they help us all cope with this crisis."

Ambrosie re-iterated the league's losses collectively are approaching $20 million annually but that the novel coronavirus "literally stopped us in our tracks."

Ambrosie received the bulk of questions Thursday during an hour-long session that also featured representatives from Falls Manor Resort and Restaurant in Niagara Falls and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Overall, he had a much easier time of it than he did last month when he testified before a House of Commons standing committee on finance. Federal politicians criticized Ambrosie for not making his presentation with members of the CFL Players' Association, approaching the federal government for assistance instead of banks, and questioned whether the CFL was looking for a loan or bailout.

Ambrosie appeared more polished and poised Thursday. But outside of divulging the federal-provincial joint meeting, Ambrosie again appeared without CFLPA representation, provided no indication about how the league will have a season and often was short on specific details.

Three of the CFL's nine franchises are based in Ontario — the Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa Redblacks. They're among the league's six clubs that are privately owned, either by individuals or corporations with deep pockets.

That prompted Conservative MPP Donna Skelly (Flamborough-Glanbrook) to ask Ambrosie what ownership was doing to help players, who've yet to receive any game cheques.

"The owners, of course, continue to fund the teams' operation," Ambrosie said. "We have expenses that don't go away just because your revenue goes away.

"We have to pay staff, we continue our planning process. In fact even in the crisis, trying to figure out how we might return to play and how we get our teams back on the field is an enormous task and requires a great many people and the teams continue to fund all of those activities."

Skelly also asked Ambrosie what the new normal for the CFL looks like as the pandemic challenges all businesses.

"What your question highlights is the complexity of the challenges we're facing," Ambrosie said. "We don't know what the new normal is going to look like.

"I think the uncertainty created around this virus has left us all feeling more vulnerable than perhaps we ever have before. We have looked at, specifically, what a socially-distant model for our stadiums would look like.

"If you take Tim Hortons Field (in Hamilton) as an example, it would take the attendance in a normal game environment from the low to mid 20s . . . down to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6,000 fans. Obviously a very different environment for sports to play in front of 6,000 fans than a full stadium as we often see at Tim Hortons and, of course, it has tremendous implications for our financial model."

Conservative MPP Dave Smith (Peterborough-Kawartha), an admitted football fan, wondered what to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the game.

"The answer is we don't know how much damage this is going to create," Ambrosie said. "We don't know because we don't know what happens next and this has been one of the problems that's plagued us from the very beginning.

"We'd love to get our players back on the field but there's still a number of answered questions . . . but we do hope and we're optimistic we will get back to the field, that we'll get back to entertaining fans."


This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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