In advance of Friday's season kickoff, we've spent a lot of time looking at the on-field state of the CFL's teams in the Three-Down Theatre series and other posts, but the off-field state of the league on a variety of business fronts is just as important. To reflect that, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon took the time for an exclusive 55-Yard Line interview on the state of the league by phone earlier this month. Here are the highlights of that conversation. (Also see this post for highlights of Cohon's conference call with media this week.)
The CFL's always a big deal in Canada during the summer months, but the league's getting even more attention than normal this year, as it's the 100th time the Grey Cup will be awarded. That's led to special initiatives from both the league and fan groups, and it's also put extra pressure on some teams (particularly the Toronto Argonauts, who will be hosting the big game) to succeed this year. Cohon said that the 100th Grey Cup celebrations, which will include a cross-country 74-day train tour and a 10-day Grey Cup festival in Toronto itself, represent a crucial moment for the CFL on the business side; they present the league with a chance to play up its history while also giving them a major platform to build on moving forward.
"One thing as Canadians, we don't do enough to celebrate our history and our past," Cohon said. "We're really going to use that. We're going to celebrate our history and set us up for the next 100 years. It's about putting pride back in our league."
The 100th Grey Cup may be particularly notable thanks to being played in Southern Ontario, an area Cohon spotlighted as perhaps the league's biggest challenge at his state of the league address last November. The Argonauts and Tiger-Cats have both had on- and off-field issues recently, and that's left the area looming as a potential problem for the league. Cohon said the 100th Grey Cup and the excitement around it gives the CFL a tremendous chance to make its mark felt in the GTA again, though.
"We have a great opportunity here in Southern Ontario," he said. "[The Grey Cup] will have a big role because of the stuff we're doing. We'll almost be ubiquitous."
Cohon said Argonauts' new CEO (and 2012 Grey Cup Festival chair/CEO) Chris Rudge is thinking big, and that's part of why the 100th Grey Cup celebrations will be so extensive.
"Chris Rudge and his team really want to reach as many people in Toronto as they can," Cohon said. "There should be so much stuff going on, I think everyone's going to notice."
Cohon announced $1 million in league funding for marketing and grassroots initiatives in Southern Ontario for both the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats last November, and he said they're already seeing results from the portion that's been spent so far.
"Both franchises are working with that," he said. "I think it's created some real excitement."
One program that money has already helped with was the Argonauts' initiative to bring schoolkids to a preseason game, which led to an impressive attendance of 36,214, got people talking and hopefully created some new CFL fans. Cohon said initiatives like that are great, and they show why this money's needed, but it will take time to see their full impact.
"It's a work in progress," he said. "There's no magic bullet that changes things overnight."
While Southern Ontario may be a challenge, the league's doing quite well on a national scale; even last year's down TV ratings were still very good in a cross-sport sense. There's always room to grow the CFL audience further, though. Cohon said the prominence of the Grey Cup itself is a huge boost for the league, and that's part of why they're taking it coast to coast.
"People love to touch it, they love to get their picture with it," he said. "[The tour] is to regale them with our history and get young fans excited and take the Cup to a place it hasn't been. This is about getting Canadians together around the Grey Cup and the CFL."
On the television front, TSN has exercised its option to broadcast the CFL's 2013 season, and also has an exclusive negotiating window for future seasons that runs until early 2013. Cohon said the CFL's been happy to work with TSN and will certainly strongly consider doing so in the future.
"TSN has been an excellent partner," he said.
However, he didn't rule out going to another network or splitting games between multiple networks.
"There is interest," Cohon said. "We'll see what happens."
Overall, Cohon's quite impressed with how the league's progressed since he took over in 2007, and he said the unity he's seen from the owners (something that hasn't always been found in the CFL) is the most remarkable development.
"I'm really excited with the way our ownership group has rallied around and united to improve the quality of our league," he said.
He said that's translated into positive results in a wide variety of areas, from growing television audiences to boosts in merchandise sales and several teams recording record profits.
"There's a real renaissance across our league," Cohon said.
Cohon's been a key part of that renaissance, and while there's still a lot to do, he'll be the man in charge through 2015 thanks to a contract extension signed earlier this year. He said his key priority during that span is making all teams financially stable.
"I really use the lens of "What's the overall health of our teams?'" he said. "It is about making sure our teams are all financially strong."
Cohon doesn't entertain any notions that it will be easy, as there are significant challenges in his path, from keeping stadium attendance high in a TV age to boosting the Southern Ontario clubs to working with CIS (something that may have become more difficult recently) to negotiating the expansion waters.
"There's a lot of work ahead," he said.
Still, he relishes the challenge, and he's open to staying as CFL commissioner beyond 2015 if he's still enjoying the job and if the owners still want him there.
"As long as I'm having fun, I want to stick around."