Randy Ambrosie, a former corporate executive with a proud history in and love for the Canadian Football League, is intent on transforming its business operations. In an interview with Postmedia’s Dan Barnes, Ambrosie discussed his vision and progress. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: This is month 11 for you, making you the 13th longest-serving commissioner already. What would you say has been your biggest challenge and what has been the most satisfying thing so far?
A: I thought about the question of biggest challenge. I’m just not sure I’ve got one answer to that. So take the other side of it. Mine is a background in data, so I’m a financial guy by nature.
In doing a consolidation of our league’s financials and then sitting down with the governors and showing them what we’ve got — doing an analysis of where our revenues are accelerating and where they’re not, doing an analysis of where our expenses are accelerating and where they’re not — showing them that whole thing and making a case for us running the league differently and just how they responded to that in such an amazing way; in that moment I knew I was working with these amazing men.
That part translates into getting with the team presidents, and now that we know where our challenges are, let’s figure out a plan to go forward. And the way the team presidents responded to that was remarkable. You know, it’s never perfect, but they understood it. It’s like we just needed to show them. We needed to show one another what we had.
It’s been clear to me that those two groups, the league governors and the team presidents, are the key to the entire future of the league because you cannot work with one over the other. You have to do all your day-to-day work with the team presidents because they literally are the guys who understand the business the best. They understand the game. They are the connecting tissue between governance and management because they have a foot in both worlds. Whereas the governors are more detached from the game of football.
I think this group all fundamentally understand that this league had never really reached its full potential and there’s an opportunity to do that. And I’m incredibly encouraged by the attitude that the governors have. There’s a desire for this league to be better than it is.
So one of the things that we’ve done is gone out to the other leagues and I’ve tried to gather a sense of what their best practices are. You learn a lot from that exercise.
So for example, the NBA, David Stern creates a team services group. It was an acknowledgement that in some of your core areas of business, selling tickets and selling sponsorships, not all the teams are as good as all the other teams. So the first thing they did is realize they can compete on the court, but they had to co-operate and collaborate off the court.
The league office, for the very first time in our history, has gotten into the ticket-selling business. Why? Because we should be the collaborator. We should figure out why this team sells more tickets than that team. What is it that they’re doing that somebody else isn’t doing? And what we just did is basically take the page out of the NBA playbook and we’ve installed it in our own business.
Data is the second thing, because you just have to have more information. You have to be able to show them that they’re in last place in a particular area. We’ve undertaken a big data project so that we can sit in a room and tell everybody what they’re good at, what they’re not as good at, and use that as a catalyst for change.
The third leg of our pillar is fan engagement. It doesn’t make sense to have all nine teams trying to coordinate ways of bringing value into the stadiums when you might be able to do national deals for things that you can do from an events perspective.
You’re going to see some announcements on partnerships that we’re establishing that no one team would likely be able to do on their own. But if as a league you’re going to potential partners and saying. ‘how about you do this for all nine teams, maybe 10 one day,’ that partner goes ‘wait a minute, we might have not have been interested if we were doing this on a one-off basis, but doing it for the whole group, that’s a totally different thing.’
Q: Hasn’t that always been the power of having the league office in Toronto?
A: No. I love (Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner) Bob Young and one of the things I said to Bob one day, I said, ‘for the last few years, the league office has been a necessary evil.’ Bob said, ‘well, no you’re wrong.’ And I go, ‘I’m wrong?’ And he says, ‘yeah, it wasn’t just the last few years.’
And in a wonderful way he was just trying to cause in me an appreciation for the fact that I had a real opportunity to turn the league office into a value creation. But you have to do one thing. You can’t tell them what you want to do. You have to align yourself with what’s important to them.
So, first thing is bums in seats and bums in seats is selling tickets and all the things you can do to help them make ticket selling a more successful endeavour. Part of that is fan engagement, reasons for somebody who may not have come to game to go, ‘wait a minute, they’re doing something here, maybe we ought to go.’
And then when they get there, you make sure that you give them a world-class experience and then that kid starts tugging on mom and dad’s arm on the way out and says, ‘can we come back?’ Now you may have fans for life.
So the amalgam of those things represents something that the league office can do that will have a direct impact on the team success.
And that was the fundamental tone of our business plan, with one last piece. And that was, I said this will be the last year that we present the business plan and the teams have nine other plans. Next year we’ll have one plan. All nine teams and the league will have one plan. Targets for total revenue growth, targets for our expenses.
We are going to report to you the totality of what is happening in the league because I really am not interested in what the league office is doing.
That’s a little business. What I’m interested in is the totality of what the league is doing. That’s a big business and for a guy like me that’s where it gets interesting. I can tell you I’ve got the governors completely bought in and engaged in that because it just makes sense.
Q: Do you already have a sense of where you are financially as a league? Where are your revenues?
A: I won’t tell you that. Not good enough. We have a 1.3 per cent five-year annual compound growth rate on revenues, that I will tell you. And that’s basically a business that I wouldn’t invest in personally. I’m not interested. That’s not outpacing inflation. We have a business that has almost a five per cent growth rate on expenses. So the combination of a 1.3 per cent kegger on revenue and a five per cent kegger on expenses is not a particularly interesting business.
So we’ve broken it down by categories. We know exactly where our expenses are rising faster than in other areas … I just laid that out and there’s no magic in it, but I just said, ‘is this what we want’ and the answer is of course a resounding no.
And then what I’ve got is nine team presidents totally willing to lean in and help solve the problem and nine league governors totally committed to supporting an effort to making this a different business.
So David (Braley, the owner of the B.C. Lions), who I love, gives me a really hard time about accepting a 1.3 per cent kegger. And I say, ‘well, David, it’s really not my keg.’ I’m just reporting the news here. I didn’t create the problem. But David wants it to be better and he wants to be proud of the growth rate.
So I’d say well, first of all, we have an unsold inventory of seats. We have a disparate and I would argue relatively undervalued asset in sponsorships … So you translate this all into a three-year plan to get more bums in seats and what happens is, your causation when you’re watching on TV is, it becomes more exciting. Bums in seats translate into viewership.
So we’ve got everybody rallying around these few basic ideas.
Q: This year will also feature the end of the current CBA. How active are you in those discussions? And what do they consist of?
A: There’s a provision in the CBA that required that the commissioner and the heads of the PA (players’ association) meet once a month, but that wasn’t being done. So the simple act of doing that is just such a game-changer. First of all, the players are not our adversaries … In fact, we just had them and their executive team in to see our full business plan. And I wanted them to see the whole thing. I want them to feel part of what we’re building here. I can’t ask them to take a leap of faith with me if I’m not prepared to show them what we’re working on. It was remarkable.
And I keep saying to Jeff (Keeping, a Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive lineman) and Brian (Ramsay, a retired offensive lineman), the way for the players to win is for the league to grow. Literally the future is written by our collective ability to drive this league forward and make it stronger, make it bigger. That’s when the players are ultimately going to reach their full potential to reap their financial rewards.
And we should be thinking about that. How do we do that best together? And I think it’s been working … If we talk to one another and we’re sharing with them a full understanding of where the league is today and where we can be in five years, in seven years, in 10 years. If we get this right, I think we can get them excited about the future and find a way past the little issues on our way to something bigger.
Q: Have you been able to identify what appears to be their major issue? Is it salary only?
A: I think we’re being cautious about kind of starting to negotiate before we negotiate. So right now we’re just talking and sharing ideas … The fact that we were able to make the change last year away from padded practices and adding the extra week to the season to make sure that we didn’t have players playing three games in 11 days, I think that those things are evidence that we can find a way to do things together.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @sportsdanbarnes