More Sports / Football

New CFL-X League alliance spans the Pacific

by Takashi Yokota and Hiroshi Ikezawa

Staff Writers

Since becoming the Canadian Football League’s 14th commissioner in 2017, Randy Ambrosie has set a new goal for the nation’s domestic pro league: globalization of the CFL and football.

Having seen the success of the Premier League, MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL to expand their markets worldwide by opening the doors to the world, Ambrosie and the CFL made partnership agreements with football leagues in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and Britain.

Now, the X League, Japan’s top American football league, has become the first Asian circuit to join the CFL’s globalization strategy.

The new partnership between the CFL and the X League includes the exchange of coaches and players and mutual marketing, though the details have not yet been decided. As the first step of the partnership, the CFL will hold combine sessions in Tokyo and Osaka in February.

The CFL also will hold a “global draft” in April to provide an opportunity to be selected by one of the league’s nine teams.

Ambrosie visited Japan earlier this month to watch the Koshien Bowl (the nation’s collegiate championship game) and the Japan X Bowl (the X League’s title game). During his visit, Ambrosie sat down with The Japan Times to talk about the CFL’s global plan and its new partnership with the X League.

What is the underlying concept of the global alliance?

When I became the commissioner, I was asked by our Board of Governors to create a long-term business plan and a vision for the CFL. Of the first decisions in that process was to define Canada. The traditional view is that our cities are very Canadian, but actually our cities are now global. Canada is a country of immigrants. It’s a multicultural country and it is a global country.

The second was that in the world of sports, global sports are doing better than domestic sports. The Premier League was what came out of the English Football League. Now the Premier League, whose 70 percent of their players are global and 30 percent are English, is one of the premium soccer leagues in the world. We see it in basketball — what the NBA has done by creating a global footprint for players.

The third part is we started to educate ourselves on the world of football outside of North America. We were amazed how big it’s becoming and how popular it is. Our strategy was why we don’t invite the world to come and play in our league. We began sharing this idea that if we all work together, where everybody wins, rather than one partner getting all the good and everyone else the bad.

Why did the CFL decide to forge an alliance with the X League?

It started with a bilateral agreement with Mexico. But very quickly, we had several countries reach out to us and asked if we were interested in talking and it seemed to be one call after another — Germany, Austria, France and the four Nordic countries. We’ve been talking with England and they joined our group as well.

Japan has more than 200 universities playing the game. Watching your college championship (the Koshien Bowl on Dec. 13), was unbelievable because not only you’re playing football, you’re playing very good football here in Japan. The addition of Japan to the alliance is exciting because there’s a lot of good football being played here.

The trick here is not that every player in Japan is going to come play in Canada. It could start with three players that make a CFL roster in 2020. And they build that bridge between Japan and Canada. We’re going to start where we are. And what we hope is that at least one and maybe two or three Japanese players come and play.

How will you scout talent?

There’s going to be two combines here, one in Tokyo and one in Osaka. Then our global scouts will choose recommend players to go to the global combine in Toronto, where we’re expecting somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 players from around the world. From those 60 there will be a global player draft where perhaps two, maybe three players per team will be chosen. Those players will be invited to CFL training camps.

Considering the different rules and field, do you think the transition will be an issue for players?

If you think about football, it’s five things. It’s blocking, tackling, running, throwing and catching. I don’t care whether you play three downs or five downs. It doesn’t matter whether you play in a field that is this wide or that wide.

The only difference in our game is that the receivers get to motion towards the line of scrimmage. What a player coming to Canada would learn is that it is very hard to play press coverage. If you’re on the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to get your hands on somebody that’s moving at that speed. You have to be a great athlete to play defensive back in our league. You don’t get a chance to jam them at the line of scrimmage.

You don’t have to be a giant to play in the CFL. Our most outstanding player this year was a gentleman named Brandon Banks, (a receiver) who plays for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. They call him “Speedy Bee” — he is 160 pounds (72.5 kg).

What did you notice about how football in Japan is being played?

They said the players are remarkably disciplined and they have good technical skills. And we saw that (in the Koshien Bowl). I was incredibly impressed by the quality of play, but you could tell there’s a very, very good discipline. That’s kind of part of the DNA of a Japanese.

Currently, the X League prohibits non-Japanese players who have played a regular season or postseason game in any professional football league. But the X League has begun to discuss about a possible change of that regulation to accept players from the CFL.

I want to do what (the X League) thinks is best. We’ll keep talking, and I’m sure we’ll have discussions about how it will work best. We’re not trying to tell them how to run their business, trying to work with them as partners. So they’ll have an approach that might be different than Germany, might be different in France, might be different than Mexico, but that’s OK.

As you reach out globally, what have you noticed about the different football cultures around the world?

For example, when I saw your junior high team play, they were in full equipment but playing touch, not tackle.

I’m taking that idea back to Canada and will tell my colleagues — it’s a very interesting idea. It might help parents who are worried about tackle football. Maybe they’ll go, well, that’s fine — their son or daughter can play football with equipment, but just play touch. That’s how we’re all going to help each other.

In Japan, we have several channels to watch NFL games, but none for the CFL. How are you going to promote the CFL in Japan?

An example is what happened in Mexico. We held the Mexican player draft in the spring last year, and almost immediately after that we had a Mexican network come to us and ask about a broadcast.

We are hoping that if two or three Japanese players are drafted by CFL teams that we might generate some interest in your broadcasters wanting to show those players playing pro football in North America.

What we experienced in Mexico, we think, could be the recipe for how it will unfold around the world. There was roughly 30,000 fans watching the Koshien Bowl. If (a Japanese player) ends up being drafted onto a CFL team, there’s 30,000 fans who are probably going to want to watch him play.

Do you envision the CFL playing games in Japan, as the NFL does in the U.K. and Mexico?

That’s something we would definitely talk to our friends about. We’d love a chance to play a regular-season game.

In fact, a part of our broadcast deal with our national broadcaster is they’ve agreed they will cover a global game. So this is something we’re hoping to do whether it’s Japan, Germany, France, England or Mexico. Someone is going to want to be the first country to host the CFL regular-season games.

And we’re not bringing preseason games, because that’s not what the fans really want to watch.

What would you like to see the global partnership be three years from now?

First of all, there’s going to be more partners. Yesterday, I was introduced to the head of the Korean Football Federation. So I think three years from now, we’ll maybe double the number of members that are part of our group. Every one of these countries will have at least one player, and in some cases, more than one player that are not just on a CFL roster, but are really contributing to the success of their teams. I think the CFL will have broadcast deals with perhaps as many as 10 countries. I think we’ll see international sponsorship deals that are good for everybody.

It sounds crazy, but the world needs more football diplomacy. We can’t rely on politicians alone to be responsible for making the world a better place. Football is a perfect sport because it’s built around inclusion and teamwork.

We’re going to build bridges, we’re going to make friendships, we’re going to help each other. That’s how it works. We are looking for an entire ecosystem of win-win outcomes. It’s not going to be one party taking everything and everyone else suffering — it’s all of us winning together.

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