If you turn on your TV and tune in to one of the CFL games this weekend, you’ll have plenty of company. On average, 800,000 Canadians watch a typical game of three-down football.
Turn it on during the Grey Cup and you’ll be one of five or six million Canadians enjoying the fall classic.
Mark Cohon is all smiles as he relates that information, and he’s even more excited about the season that just kicked off.
As commissioner of the CFL, you’d expect him to be, but unlike predecessors who were constantly putting out fires, saving franchises or, if you go back far enough, watching U.S. franchises dissolve, he’s got pretty good reason to smile.
The CFL is now into its 100th season, and the league’s head office has planned a number of events to celebrate the milestone, culminating with the Grey Cup in Toronto on Nov. 25.
The Grey Cup game, Cohon proudly points out, is already sold out. In advance of the contest, a train will ferry the actual trophy – named after the same governor-general who gave his name to the famous tea – to 100 communities across the country, beginning in early September.
There are other celebratory events on tap, Cohon continued: Canada Post is issuing a commemorative stamp in honour of the game; the league will publish a book recounting the game’s history, and TSN, which owns the broadcast rights to the game, will present eight films that relate the league to important social events in Canadian history, such as Chuck Ealey’s arrival as the first black quarterback in the CFL.
“The films will reflect what was going on in the country,” Cohon said in an interview in the league’s downtown Toronto office.
In a sort of “state of the league” review, Cohon said the CFL is on firm financial footing. Western franchises are pretty healthy: Saskatchewan registered a $6 million profit last year, while Winnipeg earned in the neighbourhood of $2.5 million.
Instead of past concerns over the viability of franchises, the league is looking to grow: Ottawa is slated to get a franchise in 2014, and legal efforts to derail renovation of the city’s Lansdowne Park facility have failed.
Testifying to the league’s strength are new stadiums going up in Winnipeg and Hamilton, while ownership is stable across the league, even if you consider that one owner, David Braley, owns two franchises, the B.C. Lions and the Toronto Argonauts, he said.
“Braley has been a champion of the league for 20 years,” Cohon said. “He’s invested in the league through tough times… His heart is in the right place.”
And, there is precedent for dual ownership of franchises. As commissioner, he continued, his job is to ensure that “the integrity of the game is in place.”
So when proponents of a “conspiracy theory” argue that the league was behind a seemingly one-side trade that sent Edmonton Eskimos all-star Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts for journeyman QB Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and Toronto’s first pick, in the 2012 Canadian college draft, Cohon stresses that he only approves trades, he doesn’t make them.
And if there was a conspiracy behind the trade – supposedly to strengthen Toronto and get them into the Grey Cup game at home – it didn’t pan out in the first week of play. In a head-to-head match up in Edmonton, the Eskimos defeated the Argos, despite the disparity at quarterback, by a 19-15 margin.
But certainly there is something to the view that Toronto remains the league’s weak link. News of the Argos is usually relegated to somewhere in the middle or back of the newspaper sports section, and the Rogers Centre is usually half-filled at best – attendance averaged 20,000 fans in 2011, with capacity being 45,000.
There seems to be no buzz about the team, as Torontonians gaze enviously south hoping to land an NFL team. And as Winnipeg head coach Paul LaPolice remarked last season, playing football in Rogers Centre is like playing in a mall.
(Former Bombers lineman Doug Brown put it this way, last year, citing LaPolice: “He said it was like playing in a mall, where you can hear the elevator music and people are screaming for their kids and you hear the shoppers milling around and stuff like that.”)
Ever the optimist, Cohon does not like to use the term “challenge” when discussing the Argos. He’s more positive in his evaluation: “The biggest opportunity is here in Toronto,” he said instead.
Steps have been taken to address the issue of fan support.
The team held its pre-season game in the middle of the afternoon, to attract school kids. Some 30,000 showed up. The club has also undertaken an anti-bullying campaign, and there’s an effort under way to reach out to new Canadians, Cohon said.
The team is attempting to improve its on-field product by bringing in Ray, and it’s increasing its media footprint by focusing on player personalities such as receiver Chad Owens, running back Cory Boyd, Ray and others, he added.
Now if all that can translate into higher ratings and greater attendance, Cohon might no longer have to sidestep questions about challenges, as the opportunities will really have materialized.