TORONTO—The most notable subject discussed during CFL commissioner Mark Cohon's annual state of the league address Friday may well have been the re-emergence of Quebec City as a legitimate expansion candidate, but many other interesting points were raised. One particularly notable one is the state of the league's relationship with Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), the governing body of Canadian university football. On the surface, everything looks bright, but when you dig a little deeper, some concerns start to emerge.
For example, Friday night will see the Vanier Cup played at the Rogers Centre in the second-straight Grey Cup-Vanier Cup pairing. That proved a tremendous success last year in bringing McMaster's dramatic win over Laval to a wider audience, and it looks set to deliver solid results again in 2012, as the game's already sold enough tickets (33,000-plus) to set an attendance record. However, there have been some complaints from people on the CIS side over how the partnership's been handled over the last few years, and although a 2013 Vanier site hasn't yet been revealed, it seems unlikely the Vanier will be paired with the Grey Cup that year thanks to limited hotel space in Regina. That's fair enough; perhaps it won't work every year. Will the CFL and CIS return to this pairing afterwards, though, or will this prove an impetus for the organizations to go their own ways?
Another key potential issue with the CFL/CIS relationship revolves around players like Frédéric Plesius, the Laval linebacker who won the Presidents' Trophy (top CIS defensive player) Thursday and will face McMaster for the Vanier Friday, but according to the thinking of many CFL people, shouldn't be in CIS at all. You see, Plesius was taken 10th overall by Hamilton in this year's CFL draft. It's not uncommon to see CIS players taken in the CFL draft return to school for a final year, but the difference is that most sign a deal, go to CFL training camps and get cut; they then return to the university ranks for seasoning and hope to crack the CFL again the following year. By contrast, Plesius and other top prospects opted to turn down the CFL entirely and stay in school, preventing the Tiger-Cats from using him this year. That's angered some on the CFL side, caused people to question Plesius' motivation (many believe he's trying to land an NFL job), and brought up talk of having players who wish to stay in school remove themselves from draft consideration so teams aren't wasting picks on them.
With that in mind, I asked Cohon about the overall state of the CFL/CIS relationship, the Vanier Cup/Grey Cup pairing and the draft pick situation Friday. Here's what he had to say:
"I feel the relationship with CIS is very strong. One of the long-term plans that the league is working on is 'How do we continue to build that?' ...I remember in '07, my first Canadian draft we did, we did it live-streaming out of my office, I felt like it was Wayne's World, in the basement. Essentially, we have come so far with the Canadian draft. ... At the end of the day, essentially, the scouting reports we put out about the Canadian talent, the quality of our evaluation camps, the focus on quarterbacks at training camp, the issues around marrying the Vanier Cup and the Grey Cup—listen, this Vanier Cup will probably be the most-attended Vanier Cup in the history of Vanier Cups—these are things that we're focused on. We want to continue to grow. We're looking forward to when they announce a new [CIS] executive director, but I know our relationship with Leo MacPherson, the acting president, is very strong. We're going to continue to focus on closer efforts with them."
It's reassuring that this is a priority on the league side. It's hard to overemphasize how crucial a strong CIS is to a strong CFL, especially from a talent-development standpoint: consider that even in 2012, a year that saw less CIS talent drafted than usual, 53 per cent of the CFL draft picks still came from the CIS ranks, including first-overall offensive lineman Ben Heenan. However, there are very few specifics to be found in Cohon's answer. Yes, the CIS-CFL relationship has improved dramatically since 2007; consider that in addition to the described draft follies, that year also saw the Vanier Cup held in Toronto alongside the Grey Cup, but the two weren't officially paired, making for some ridiculous conflicts and the Vanier game being somewhat overshadowed. Things are a lot better on this front now than they were then.
However, both of these leagues need to work hard to keep things going well. On the CFL front, the league can't afford to take CIS for granted; Canadian university football is a crucial and effective way for them to get trained, talented Canadian players who can shine in the CFL. Meanwhile, CIS people need to think long-term and realize that working with the CFL can be hugely beneficial for them; yes, the Vanier Cup-Grey Cup pairing requires ceding some control, but the upside is so huge from a perspective of media coverage, fan attendance and broadcast ratings that, from this corner, it seems well worth it to pair the events whenever possible. Similarly, the CFL isn't going to just raid all the CIS talent if players decide to go to camps; many of them will be coming back for a final year. It shouldn't be about turf wars; it should be about both of these Canadian football organizations working together to benefit the game as a whole. Cohon's comments provide room for optimism on that front, but in the end, this relationship will be judged by how the sides act.
A few notes on other topics from the state of the league presser:
—Canadian quarterbacks are still an issue, and one of the best (Kyle Quinlan) will be playing in Friday night's Vanier Cup, but the only one currently on a CFL roster, Calgary's Brad Sinopoli, may be contemplating a position switch. The belief from this corner remains that a rule change (perhaps even a simple tweak that just makes active rosters 21 Canadians and 21 Americans, not 20 Canadians, 19 Americans and three "quarterbacks" who are usually American) will be required for Canadian QBs to succeed. Cohon said Friday he doesn't think that's necessary, though, citing the league's push to have teams bring Canadian quarterbacks to training camps for seasoning, noting Sinopoli as an example of Canadian quarterback success under the current system and saying he thinks Quinlan will be just fine without a rule change.
"I'm optimistic a player like Kyle Quinlan one day will play in our league," Cohon said.
(It may or may not be notable that "as a quarterback" was not added there; the sense of the comment was that Cohon was speaking about quarterbacks, but as we've seen time and time again, that often isn't the position Canadian QBs wind up in when they make the CFL, so that comment may be seen differently in retrospect if Quinlan's lined up in another position in a few years.)
—Cohon was asked if Toronto mayor Rob Ford's football follies were a distraction from the Grey Cup this week, but he took the high road, praising Ford's enthusiasm for football.
"He had a trick play when he stepped back," Cohon said to laughter. "Mayor Ford wears his heart on his sleeve. He loves his football, he loves the Grey cup."
—Cohon said 75 per cent of the league's teams are making money or breaking even, which, in an eight-team league, means two aren't. The likely suspects there are Hamilton and Toronto. The Tiger-Cats should get a boost once their new stadium is ready (it's planned for 2014), but the Argos have further issues. Cohon said a key problem is that they're not the main tenant at the Rogers Centre.
"The fact they don't control their venue, you don't have that sense of home for the Toronto Argonauts," he said. "What they're trying to do is make the Rogers Centre work."
—Cohon was asked about bringing back the option rule in contracts to draw more talent, and said he doesn't favour that right now.
"The process for it is discussion at the competition committee," he said. "I would say I have to be convinced to change that, and I'm not convinced yet."
—The CFL's TV ratings rose 6 per cent on average across TSN and RDS this year despite many dubious blackouts (especially in B.C.). Cohon said the improvement on the television side has been one of the most notable things that's happened since he came to the league in 2007.
"In 2007, our TV ratings were good," he said. "Today, I think they're excellent. They're up 100 per cent and second only to the NHL."