One of the most important commissioners in the history of the CFL has decided he won't be leading the league any longer. Commissioner Mark Cohon, who's served in that role since 2007, announced Wednesday that he will not seek a third term when his contract expires in April. Cohon's era has seen the CFL evolve from a league that seemed in constant crisis with the ever-present danger of at least a few teams folding to one that just signed the richest TV deal in its history and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that should ensure labour peace for up to five years and keep lots of money in the owners' pockets. There are still significant challenges ahead for whoever replaces Cohon, particularly with the Toronto Argonauts' ownership and stadium situation and with the push to get the league to 10 teams, but this league is in infinitely better shape than it was in 2007, and Cohon deserves substantial credit for that.
It's worth reflecting on just how dire things looked for the CFL when Cohon first came in. The Ottawa Renegades had recently folded in March 2006, and plenty of other teams seemed threatened, particularly the Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. New stadiums were desperately needed in much of the league, but there wasn't a lot of money coming in, especially from TV. Cohon started making some bold changes, though, and those paid off. Perhaps most importantly, he sold the league's TV rights exclusively to TSN, a decision that angered many used to watching games on CBC, but one that paved the way for the CFL's survival as a business by giving TSN incentive to promote the game and bringing in substantial rights fees. He also announced as early as 2008 that the league intended to return to Ottawa and awarded a conditional franchise to Jeff Hunt's group, but ensured that all of the ducks would be in a row before the team officially launched (which didn't happen until this season). Getting the Ottawa expansion right was vital, and Cohon made sure that it was done for the long term, not hastily slapped together.
Cohon helped the league weather several early crises, such as the 2009 revelations that B.C. owner David Braley had been secretly funding the Argonauts, which led to Braley's eventual purchase of the team. He also managed to resist significant pressure to reduce the required number of Canadian starters, something that would have been disastrous for the CFL's popularity. He and the league office also played a role in working out new stadium deals for B.C., Winnipeg, Ottawa, Hamilton and Saskatchewan, all of which should help those teams grow and thrive long-term. It's the moves over the last two years that may be the most essential to the league's future, though; Cohon managed to get incredible money from TSN for TV/radio/digital rights, and then he somehow managed to survive acrimonious CBA negotiations and earn a deal that kept wealth going to the teams without even missing preseason games. That means whoever comes next will inherit a league that seems to be in remarkably good financial shape.
It's also a league that, by and large, has a great relationship with its fans, and Cohon deserves a lot of credit there too. That alone is remarkable; in an era where most sports' commissioners have been despised, Cohon has been largely praised by the masses, and with good reason. He came up with the brilliant "Fans' State Of The League" event at each Grey Cup, giving fans opportunities to interact with the commissioner and have their questions heard, and he embraced and encouraged the league's digital and social media efforts, which have been critical to building a younger audience for the CFL. Cohon also always seemed accessible and relateable to fans, regularly interacting with them on Twitter and at various get-togethers and tweetups. It's notable that he announced his decision with an open letter to fans about how important they are to the game. Whoever follows after Cohon will have big shoes to fill, and they'll particularly have to work hard to maintain the fan-friendly atmosphere and relationships he built, which is crucial to the CFL's continued success.
Many previous commissioners have left quickly, and not entirely of their own volition. Cohon was the 11th CFL commissioner (counting interim ones) in the 20 years from 1988 to 2007, which is remarkable, and no one since Jake Gaudaur (1968-1984) had served for more than four years. It looks like Cohon is leaving on his own terms to pursue new challenges (anything else is almost unimaginable given the success he's had), and that in and of itself is tremendously positive for the league. There's finally some stability at the top, and the path seems clear for an orderly transition, with Cohon indicating he's willing to stay on through the end of his term in April.
Who will succeed him? The most likely in-house candidate would appear to be CFL president and COO Michael Copeland, Cohon's long-time number two man who's been praised for his own work on CBA negotiations, stadium deals and much more. From this corner, he'd seem to be a good choice; Copeland's very familiar with the league and has created some of its successes, and having someone with a strong financial background will be critical to the CFL's future prosperity. However, Copeland's dismissal of the CFLPA's player-safety concerns is problematic, especially considering the concussion lawsuits arising against the league. Comments made in the heat of CBA negotiation shouldn't disqualify him from consideration here, but he may need to modify that approach to ensure this league's future in an era where concussions are a crucial issue. There undoubtedly will be external candidates vying for the job too, and that itself says great things about Cohon's tenure. Running the CFL used to seem like a job no one wanted; now, it looks like an extremely desirable opportunity.
The CFL still definitely has problems, and the biggest one is in Toronto. The Argonauts have an owner in Braley who wants to sell (but so far, not for a reasonable price), a shortage of buyers (especially considering MLSE is backing off), a terrible current stadium setup, a drop-dead date to get out of that stadium in a few years, and no current viable alternative stadium plan. Fixing that mess will become priority one for the new commissioner if it's not resolved by the end of Cohon's tenure. Priority two may well be about concussions, both lawsuits launched by former players and current safety protocols. The third priority has to be getting this league to 10 teams, but doing so the right way; the nine-team setup is extremely difficult from a scheduling and balance standpoint, and there are interesting places to consider for expansion (particularly Atlantic Canada or Quebec City), but expansion needs to be done right and with the long-term future in mind. All of these issues and more will be challenging. However, the league's in far better shape now than it was when Cohon came in. Things won't be easy for his successor, but the future of the CFL looks very bright, and Cohon deserves a lot of credit for that.