Mark Cohon boasts about CFL's success but notes challenges in final state-of-the-league address

55 Yard Line
Canadian Football League commissioner Mark Cohon shows off the logos of the various CFL teams that he had sewn to the inside of his jacket prior to addressing the media during the State of the League address in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Jonathan Hayward)
Canadian Football League commissioner Mark Cohon shows off the logos of the various CFL teams that he had sewn to the inside of his jacket prior to addressing the media during the State of the League address in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Jonathan Hayward)

VANCOUVER – After eight years on the job, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon is confident he’s leaving the league in a much better state than when he arrived. In his final state-of-the-league address Cohon boasted about the many successes he’s presided over, but also wasn’t shy about pointing out some major challenges the league is still facing.

Most of those challenges lie in Toronto, the league’s biggest market but also home to its most troubled franchise. The Argonauts are rife with off-field woes, including the possibility of being homeless in 2017 when their lease at the Rogers Centre runs out.

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“We have to do dramatically more in our biggest market,” Cohon said Friday. “We have been working hard with [owner] David Braley as he works to try to negotiate a lease agreement with MLSE and the City of Toronto to move the Argos into BMO Field. Would I like to have the bow tied around that before I leave as commissioner? Asbolutely, but I have the confidence that David will get something done in the coming months with MLSE.”

A move to the soon-to-be-renovated stadium is the Argos best, and perhaps last, hope of finding a suitable venue. The Argos have been courting MLSE for months but their relationship would best be described as complicated. Meanwhile the Argos are suffering at the gate with a season-high attendance of just 19,687 in Week 20, and major changes in the front office. Toronto’s woes are frustrating to Cohon and CFL brass considering the success of the 100th Grey Cup festival in 2012.

“We just haven’t been able to translate that into the experience at the stadium,” Cohon said. “One of the learnings from that is, coming out of the 100th Grey Cup, we should have tried to invest more in Toronto and worked closer with the Argos.”

Cohon’s other concern, or perhaps a concern for his successor, is growing the league among younger fans.

“We have to become a great content company,” he said. “The best way to grow as a content company is to ensure that our game and athletes appeal to the casual fans and next generation of fans… I think today and in the future we have to reach out to the next generation of fans. But we also have to make sure our league remains a great game.”

Aside from that, Cohon painted a pretty rosy picture. The league avoided a players’ strike in the spring and signed a new collective bargaining agreement, they’re in the middle of a new television deal with TSN – plus have a TV deal with ESPN in the United States – and new stadiums are just opening or being built in multiple cities.

Cohon’s legacy as commissioner, however, may be the successful return of an Ottawa franchise to the CFL.

“Our return to the nation’s capital was obviously a big success,” Cohon said. “Every Ottawa Redblacks game was sold out, the team did an amazing job preparing TD Place and Lansdowne – it’s one of the best places in North America to watch football. Obviously next season they’ll want more Ws. But I’m very proud of what they’ve done.”

With Ottawa off and running, the subject of further expansion into Atlantic Canada and creating an ideal 10-team league came to the fore again.

“[COO] Mike Copeland and I went out [to Halifax] last February to meet with the mayor and about 40 different business executives,” Cohon said. “Mayor Michael Savage is a very progressive guy, he went to Ottawa to see the stadium there. If you think about the potential of Atlantic Canada you have to think about public/private partnership like we have in Ottawa.

“That is a 10-year project, it really is. I would say there’s been no one who has come forward to say ‘We want to lead this project.’”

With the house mostly in order the biggest task facing the league is finding Cohon’s replacement. The new candidate will have big shoes to fill.

“Eight years ago I knew we had to showcase what was best about our league,” Cohon said. “We need to find someone who is passionate about this league. Doesn’t mean he had to play, doesn’t mean he has to be an executive in this league but a passion for this league is important.”

“We are looking for someone with leadership experience, CEO experience,” added CFL board of governors chair Jim Lawson. “We’re looking for someone with a strategic vision for the future. Someone who can look five years, 10 years out to make sure this league continues to strive.

“The expectation is we will have someone in place by the beginning of April, certainly before the beginning of the season.”

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