The global pandemic pushed it to the back burner but commissioner Randy Ambrosie says expansion has always been on the CFL’s radar.
On Saturday, the Toronto Argonauts and Saskatchewan Roughriders meet in Wolfville, N.S., in the CFL’s first Touchdown Atlantic game since 2019. It will also mark the first regular-season contest ever played in Halifax.
“Obviously in the midst of the COVID crisis we had other more pressing issues but this has never come off the table,” Ambrosie told The Canadian Press. “We put together a working group of governors to study expansion, we’ve gone as far as hiring an investment bank that specializes in sports transactions.
“We asked them on the pros and cons of expansion and, frankly, their report came back with an overwhelming message of the importance of expansion to move our league forward. Just the practical realities of getting the 10th team and the very positive affects that will have on scheduling. I think what it’s done is remind us how important this really is.”
The Maritimes has long been mentioned as a potential CFL expansion site. The league granted Halifax a conditional expansion franchise in the 1980s but it never played a game.
Tentative plan foiled by pandemic
Before the 2018 Grey Cup game in Edmonton, the CFL revealed tentative plans to add a 10th team in Halifax. Originally, the hope was to have the Atlantic Schooners on the field by 2021 in Moncton, N.B., while a new stadium was being built in the Nova Scotia capital.
The ownership group had secured $20 million in government funding to build a facility. However, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in that funding project being discontinued.
Saturday’s contest will be played before 10,000 fans at Raymond Field on the campus of Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., selling out in roughly an hour. It will be the first Touchdown Atlantic game since 2019 and second played in Nova Scotia as the first was an exhibition game in Halifax in 2005.
Four other Touchdown Atlantic regular-season contests have been held in Moncton from 2010-19. The 2020 Touchdown Atlantic game was scheduled for Halifax but was cancelled as the CFL didn’t play that season due to the global pandemic.
Need for multi-purpose stadium
The biggest hurdle facing a Maritime CFL franchise — or any expansion club, for that matter — is a stadium. But Ambrosie said any new facility must be one built for more than just football games.
One example Ambrosie pointed to was Tim Hortons Field, which is home to both the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Canadian Football Hall of Fame. But Forge FC of the Canadian Premier League also plays its soccer games there and on Jan. 30, the Canadian men’s soccer team beat the U.S. 2-0 in a World Cup qualifying game.
Then on March 14, the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 in the NHL Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field, which also hosts concerts.
“When it comes to a stadium, it’s what a new multi-purpose venue could do for Halifax and the Atlantic region and frankly goes way beyond football,” Ambrosie said. “I think the important messaging here is not about a stadium for football, it’s about a stadium to serve a region.
“That’s a conversation we’re going to have in the weeks and months to come because we think that’s a more fundamentally important issue than a stadium for football alone.”
Ambrosie acknowledges the Maritimes have long been mentioned as a CFL expansion site, but he stops well short of putting a time frame on when the league will add a 10th team.
“I think we need to take whatever time it takes to get it right,” he said. “In the meantime, I think we need to demonstrate our commitment to Atlantic Canada.
“We’re going to play a game this weekend that was sold out in an hour. I think we need to continue to bring our game here, we need to make Atlantic Canadians part of the CFL family. We need to remind and reinforce our belief that a coast-to-coast CFL is good for the league and Canada.”
Other cities in play
Other cities — Quebec City, London and Windsor — have also been mentioned as possible CFL expansion cities. Ambrosie said the league should keep an open mind on all potential newcomers, even if it means granting a 10th franchise to another region other than Halifax.
“This is clearly a region we have great passion for and has been on the radar now for a long time,” Ambrosie said. “But we are open to all good ideas and proposals.
“If someone walks into the CFL office next week and presents a proposal for a remarkable opportunity in another community that is going to see the CFL take the next step toward its goal for long-term success, we’re going to have to pay attention to it. But for today, we’re in Atlantic Canada, we believe in this region and we think this region is right for us and we believe we’re right for this region.”