CFL close to re­solv­ing Alou­ettes sit­u­a­tion

The Prince George Citizen - - Sports - Dan RALPH

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.”

CP FILE PHOTO

Mon­treal Alou­ettes Fabion Foote sacks Toronto Arg­onauts quar­ter­back McLeod Bethel-Thomp­son, left, in sec­ond half CFL ac­tion in Monc­ton, N.B. on Aug. 25. Mon­treal won 28-22.

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