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CFL's midseason report shows attendance up in B.C., Montreal and Toronto

TORONTO — It seems CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has plenty to smile about at the halfway point of the '23 season.
Toronto Argonauts running back AJ Ouellette (34) celebrates his touchdown against the Ottawa Redblacks with teammates wide receiver David Ungerer III (83) and wide receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. (19) during first half CFL football action in Toronto, on Sunday, August 13, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Lahodynskyj

TORONTO — It seems CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has plenty to smile about at the halfway point of the '23 season.

The CFL released a midseason report Wednesday that stated attendance in its three major markets (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal) is up, along with the league's viewership ratings in the 25-to-54 demographic. Also, fan engagement on its social media channels and page views on the league's website have both experienced double-digit increases.

"Look, there's always work to do," Ambrosie said in a telephone interview. "But there are so many positive elements to what's been happening.

"I think we're building an amazing foundation for the future . . . I'm very excited about that."

In its report, the CFL said game-day revenue for the B.C. Lions, Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes is up 26 per cent year over year. However, specific attendance figures for each franchises wasn't provided.

The report added viewership for games involving at least one of those teams was up 27 per cent in the 25-to-54 demographic. It also stated game-day revenues across the CFL were up 2.3 per cent. Again, specific figures weren't divulged.

The first half of the season has been a successful one on the field for the three clubs. B.C. (7-3) is currently second in the West Division while Toronto (7-1) leads the East Division ahead of second-place Montreal (6-3).

Montreal's first-half success comes after a tumultuous off-season that saw the CFL assume ownership of the franchise before ultimately selling it to Quebec  businessman Pierre Karl Peladeau. But uncertainty surrounding the club resulted in may free agents -- including quarterback Trevor Harris, linebacker Adarius Pickett and receivers Eugene Lewis -- going to other clubs.

But under new head coach Jason Maas and quarterback Cody Fajardo -- who signed with Montreal in free agency -- the Alouettes have been a feel-good story thus far.

The Lions continue to flourish under owner Amar Doman while the Argos -- despite their impressive record as defending Grey Cup champions -- are averaging under 14,000 spectators over their three dates at BMO Field. Another home game -- a 31-13 win over Saskatchewan -- was staged at Halifax's Huskies Stadium on July 29.

"It wasn't all that long ago the three major markets would've been a real concern," Ambrosie said. "Now we're seeing real momentum in those markets.

"Adding Pierre Karl Peladeau and his team to our league this winner was an enormous step in the right direction. Now, Toronto would say they have a ways to go but there's real positive things happening there and we're seeing what the energy of Amar Doman has brought in B.C. The major markets are now becoming a strength of our league and that's really important for our long-term success."

For years, there were concerns the CFL wasn't doing enough to appeal to younger fans. But the report suggests more are tuning into games as viewership ratings in the 25-to-54 age demographic are up 29 per cent.

The league adds over 8.8 million spectators have watched a league broadcast on TSN, with another 1.9 million doing so on RDS.

"That demographic is so important for so many reasons," Ambrosie said. "One of them is it's so important to our sponsors, our advertising partners.

"To see the dramatic growth in that category has been overwhelmingly positive because it matters so much to so many of stakeholders."

Other '23 highlights include:

-- Scoring is 47.4 points per game, up 10 per cent from '21.

-- A total of 28 kick/return touchdowns had been scored.

-- Twenty-six games have been decided in the final three minutes. There've also been 26 comeback victories.

But all hasn't been rosy this season.

For weeks, league drew criticism from fans and media regarding its struggles to deliver up-to-date in-game statistics. In December 2021, the CFL announced its partnership Genius Sports, a data, technology and commercial company.

And then there's been the Edmonton Elks (1-9). They began their year with nine straight defeats to extend their club record tying-streak to 13 games. But what generated even more headlines was the franchise having dropped a CFL-record 22 contests at Commonwealth Stadium, their last there coming in October 2019.

Last week, the Elks and president/CEO Victor Cui mutually agreed to part ways. But now things appear to be looking up for Edmonton, which earned a 24-10 road win over Hamilton last week then announced Tuesday the return of Rick LeLacheur as interim president/CEO.

"We all know Rick has a long and storied history in our league," Ambrosie said. "He's the right person to do an assessment of where they go from here.

"I now the football team isn't pleased with its record . . . but now it has that first win under their belt. There's a great fan base in Edmonton, the football team has to give them a reason to get re-energized. In the world of sports with a bounce here or there, a potentially bad outcome can quickly become a good one."

The '23 season will end Nov. 19 with the Grey Cup game at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field. But there's another potential issue facing the CFL that it has no control over.

Talk a fall COVID-19 wave brings back bad memories of how the global pandemic hit the CFL hard in 2020. The league didn't play that year, resulting in a reported financial loss of between $60-to-$80 million.

The CFL resumed play the following year with an abbreviated campaign that ended with the Grey Cup game being played in December in Hamilton. But social-distancing protocols then resulted in a drastically reduced Grey Cup festival.

This year, the plan is for over 40 events to be held during Grey Cup week in and around Hamilton.of 

"We're watching it carefully," Ambrosie said. "There is and will be plan in place for how we might deal with different eventualities.

"On a positive note, we've got a lot of experience now as a society and I think we can handle it. I'm optimistic that even if there's a slight spike in COVID, we'll navigate our way through it and it won't diminish the focus on a remarkably good game, a remarkably good league and a lot of excitement."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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