As a sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 impatiently await witnessing some Canadian Football League action in Halifax on Saturday, the league’s top executive is more enthusiastic than ever about permanently bringing professional football to the region.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said in an interview Friday he’s both personally and professionally invested in bringing the league’s 10th team to the area – describing Halifax as a “perfect CFL community”.
“I would love to see a CFL franchise here … I believe in it,” he said. “I think we really would like to be here; we’re committed to expansion.”
Huskies Stadium at Saint Mary’s University will be host to the league’s Touchdown Atlantic event on Saturday, as defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The CFL had previously said the stadium will be expanded to host more than 10,000 fans. It also said the league has expanded capacity in the Church Brewing Party Zone to welcome 1,000 more people.
Ambrosie, who also won a Grey Cup in 1993 during a professional football career of his own, said the process of bringing a team to Atlantic Canada is currently at the “last mile” and added that it’s now up to the region to “bring us in the rest of the way.”
He said confirming interest from potential owners has become less of an issue, but one main challenge persists: figuring out where the team would play.
“You have to have a home for the team,” he said. “It really is the central issue but one of the real positive changes we made was the mindset around our expectations for how we would start here.”
Ambrosie said Halifax doesn’t need a “brand new, sparkling” stadium to launch a franchise in the city as he believes his organization could kick things off “more modestly” in the region.
After discussions with local advisors and community groups, he said his understanding is supporters of the concept would also back a similar approach.
“Their view is Haligonians would be very willing to be part of a CFL franchise in a more humble environment to start, and who knows, maybe … five-ten years later, (we) do something a little bigger,” he said.
“We’ve set our sights on a more modest start and that makes it significantly more viable.”
Ambrosie acknowledged the recent success of the Halifax Wanderers, the city’s professional soccer team, which has recently stated it’s “getting close” to developing a larger, permanent stadium in the city.
He said there have been lots of conversations about team ownership for the CFL among those interested in the private sector.
“I believe we can deliver on a strong ownership situation … nothing definitive but certainly enough positive conversations to warrant a real strong sense of optimism.”
Ambrosie said the sense of community throughout the city is a factor that makes Halifax feel like the “right city for expansion”.
“There’s a welcomeness to this part of the country that’s unmistakable and it’s why it’s such a captivating place for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy … lots of football fans down there, lots of smiles.”
“Plus, who doesn’t like a fresh lobster?” he laughed.
When asked if the possibility of failed attempts to recruit a franchise to Atlantic Canada would bring Touchdown Atlantic games to a halt, Ambrosie said at this point, he’s only concerned with the present.
“Right now, we’re focused on this year … we’ll have a fantastic day tomorrow, great game, great environment,” he said. “Once that’s done, we want to have a conversation about where we go in terms of a potential franchise here, and then we’ll have other choices and decisions to make.”
He said he’s expecting nothing less than a “spectacular day” when the Argonauts kick off against the Roughriders at Saint Mary’s on Saturday.
In 2022, Touchdown Atlantic, which the CFL describes as the “east coast’s biggest celebration of football”, was hosted at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., attracting nearly 11,000 spectators to an expanded Raymond Field on Acadia’s campus.
That Touchdown Atlantic event generated more than $12.7 million in economic benefit to regions of Nova Scotia, according to a study commissioned by the league. Of that, over $11.8 million was in the Halifax area alone.
“For this year, we’re in Halifax. We’re here because we want to be here. We’d like to stay permanently,” he said.
“In fact, if you let us, we’ll just stay and then we’ll start playing next year,” he smiled.