The CFL officially announced a three-year extension for commissioner Mark Cohon Friday, a move that had been rumoured as early as last July and one that gained force with reports this week. As opined here Thursday, this is an excellent move for the league: the CFL is in a much better place than it was when Cohon took over five years ago, and the stability of having the longest-tenured commissioner since Jake Gaudaur itself says a lot about what Cohon's accomplished. Still, there are plenty of challenges ahead. Here are five of the most prominent issues he'll have to deal with in the coming three years.
1. Toronto: It's vital for any Canadian professional sports league to have a strong presence in Toronto, Canada's largest city and a hub for media coverage, broadcast rights and corporate sponsorship. The CFL has a long-tenured presence there with the Argonauts, North America's oldest professional football club and one that traces its origins back 139 years, but the team has run into on- and off-field struggles recently. After an impressive 9-9 2010 season and playoff victory in Jim Barker's first year as head coach, 2011 marked a step back to 6-12, and the Argonauts finished at the bottom of the league in attendance as well.
2012 is a huge year for the team, particularly considering their hosting of the 100th Grey Cup in November. There are other looming issues as well, such as the prospect of the team losing the ability to play at the Rogers Centre (although new CEO Chris Rudge isn't worried) , the always-present threat of NFL relocation to town (although that's far from imminent right now) and the ongoing issue with team owner David Braley also owning the B.C. Lions (a non-critical, but sub-ideal situation). With bold moves such as the Ricky Ray trade from Barker, now in the general manager's role, and the hiring of new head coach Scott Milanovich, this team is clearly looking to turn things around quickly and make a large impact on the 2012 season. If they can do that, draw plenty of fans in the process and keep them after the Grey Cup circus departs, Cohon may not have to do much on the Toronto front. If not, though, ensuring the stability of the Argonauts could be the toughest issue on his plate.
2. Ottawa: The one city the CFL has already committed to expanding to still poses its share of issues. They're apparently still set to join the league in 2014, but a variety of court challenges have slowed construction efforts on the new Lansdowne Park. There are also thorny issues to consider, such as which name the new team will bear. Much of the work from the league side has already been done, including establishing a promising process for the dispersal draft, but Cohon will need to ensure that this expansion goes well and that the new Ottawa team is set up to survive for the long term. If done well, returning to Ottawa could be a feather in the CFL's cap; if done poorly, it could create a crisis.
3. Television: The league's current contract with TSN expires in 2013, and negotiating a new one will be high on Cohon's list of priorities. Television revenues are becoming a more and more crucial part of sports leagues' operations in this day and age, and a strong TV contract is essential to keeping the CFL solid and profitable. That may not necessarily be with TSN: there have been rumours that Sportsnet and CBC could get in on the bidding as well. Regardless of who the deal is signed with, there are several key elements that have to be considered beyond just the final dollar figure, including promotion on the winning network's other properties, if all games will be on the same channel, and what provisions there will be for blackouts. A new television deal will be one of the most important negotiations Cohon undertakes during this term, and whatever he's able to do here will likely be a key factor in the league's future.
4. Hamilton: The Tiger-Cats' stadium plans have been set, but there are still plenty of issues to deal with. Most notably, some solution has to be found for what the team will do during the 2013 season, which could involve playing in a variety of college stadiums in the area, playing games in Atlantic Canada, or something else. Cohon has to work with the team to find a solution that's as fair as can be to the Tiger-Cats on the field, but also works for the fans and the larger goal of promoting the game. It's not going to be an easy task.
5. Further expansion: The CFL doesn't necessarily need to expand beyond Ottawa. However, it needs to seriously look at the possible expansion candidates and determine if any are worthwhile. A team in the Maritimes is obviously being considered, and a team in Quebec City could perhaps work if the Alouettes and the Laval Rouge et Or don't interfere. Saskatoon has been proposed (even if there are notable challenges there), and there are other potential sites, perhaps including the B.C. interior or Vancouver Island. A key for Cohon and the league leadership is not to get caught up in expansion fever, though. The CFL should only go into a market when there's a suitable long-term plan and when it makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Thus far, Cohon's tenure has been quite promising on that front. We'll see what he does over the next few years.
Other considerations: The CFL-CFLPA bargaining agreement will expire following the 2013 season, and will need to be renegotiated. While the current system seems to be working reasonably well for both sides, it would be well worth Cohon's time to start negotiations early so that NFLesque labour strife doesn't arise. Also on the CFLPA front, Cohon has shown promise in working with the union and other stakeholders to address the problem of current concussions: he'll need to continue his efforts on that front, and he also may need to do more to address the plight of retired players dealing with concussion issues, as those numbers are only likely to rise further. Overall, Cohon's done well so far, but the next three years will post their share of challenges.