What Jeffrey Orridge is made of: CFL commissioner talks TV, drug testing, more

WINNIPEG—Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge's first state-of-the-league address to media Friday had a significant focus on the CFL's new "What We're Made Of" branding initiative, but his remarks and his approach also showed what he's made of, and the different direction he wants for this league.

These events have always been a dance between what the league wants to talk about and what the media want to ask about. Even by that standard, however, Orridge's remarks were much more about the big-picture branding and strategy and less about the specifics than we've sometimes seen. He said the league is facing some challenges, specifically with a 15 per cent drop in TV ratings, but that the rating slide was largely about competition factors unique to this season.

"It's my belief this was a perfect storm," he said. "We faced unprecedented competition from the Pan Am Games in Canada, the Women's World Cup in Canada, and the Blue Jays' surge."

Orridge said the CFL is looking hard at ways to improve the TV audience, though.

"It would be irresponsible if we didn't take this seriously," he said. "We experimented with Thursday night games and it was very successful. Some of our highest-rated games were on Thursdays."

The CFL is perhaps more focused than it's ever been on trying to attract new and young viewers, a clear priority for Orridge. The league's also developing a new website and mobile-focused products to engage younger fans. He said bringing in those young fans is the goal of this new campaign.

"It's fast, it's contemporary and clearly forward-looking. It has a feel that's more now than nostalgic," he said. "We're not asking casual fans to join our fans in the stands because it's their duty as Canadians. We're asking them to join because of the great product. ...Our great fans will be the first to tell you: we need more fans. And in particular, we need to attract the next generation of fans, so this league is strong for years to come."

Orridge said he thinks the on-field product was largely strong and the new rule changes were positive, with scoring up eight per cent, games three minutes shorter despite expanded replay and 85 per cent of one-point conversions made after they were moved back (versus 95 per cent the previous year). He did say the rise in penalties was concerning, but that it's not all about the refs (an opinion shared here):

"I think it's unfair and too simplistic to attribute this solely to officiating," he said. "I wish everyone who watches our game was as quick to acknowledge when a good call was made. ...Overall, our officials do a really good job."

The commissioner said his primary on-field concern is quarterback injuries, which produced 28 different starters this year (a record in an eight- or nine-team CFL), 11 QBs making their starting debut, and seven of nine starters hurt.

"The most significant challenge facing our product is injuries to quarterbacks," Orridge said. "It was one of those years, extremely rare years for quarterback injuries, but there may be some underlying issues, and we're going to examine those. ...We owe it to our fans, our players and our product to take a look at this."

The most frequent question Orridge faced was about drug testing, which the league isn't currently conducting in the wake of the WADA-accredited lab they were using pulling out over concerns about the policy. Orridge said the league has developed a new policy, which it's negotiating with its players.

"It is unfortunate that we don't have a drug-testing policy in place right now," he said. "It's not good for the players, it's certainly not good for the league. We've been working with the players on developing something much more forward-thinking. ...We’ve worked hard to strengthen the policy I inherited, so we can work with a credible lab and in the best interests of the health and safety of our players, and the integrity of our game."

Orridge said this policy has been developed in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which had many initial concerns about the CFL's policies. He said the new policy should be more acceptable to them.

"We've engaged CCES again for developing a new policy for our league," he said. "It's going to be in accordance with what CCES feels is appropriate for our league, I'm confident of that."

On the business side, the CFL does seem more stable than before now the Argos' ownership and stadium questions are settled, and Orridge said that's a key move for the league.

"One of the most important things we could have done this year was improve the situation in Toronto, and we have," he said. "There's tremendous potential for a new era from the Argos."

He said it was also a record year for corporate sponsorships.

"It was our strongest year in CFL history, with the exception of the 100th Grey Cup."

The league's first black commissioner has frequently talked about the importance of opportunities for all, which was reflected in the award he gave to trailblazing black quarterback Bernie Custis on Thursday. However, when Orridge was asked about the CFL's current lack of black coaches and general managers (at present, that's just interim Saskatchewan head coach Bob Dyce and Edmonton general manager Ed Hervey) and if the league would ever bring in something along the lines of the NFL's Rooney Rule to mandate interviews for minorities, he didn't seem high on the idea.

"The best thing that we can do, that any employer can do, is to have the broadest possible source," he said. "I think we need to hire the best people possible, whereever they come from, where ever they may be."

Orridge said he thinks there is progress being made in the CFL's diversity, even if it's not always at the top levels within teams.

"I think the CFL has always had a history of inclusiveness and giving people opportunities based on the quality of their content," he said. "You're seeing more people of colour not just on the field but in administration, in positions of power.'

He said there has been some talk about changes to the Canadian ratio, but that's not a priority right now.

"There have been quiet discussions about that, but it's not something that's on the front burner right now."

Orridge was grilled heavily about future Grey Cups, as both Hamilton and Ottawa have reportedly been promised them as part of their new stadium deals, but nothing has been set for either city yet. He refused to offer any specifics on that front.

"I can assure there is equity and reasonableness applied to every decision made about the Grey Cup," he said.

He was also asked about an earlier season to create better weather for the Grey Cup and the playoffs, but said that's a complicated discussion thanks to the competition with other sports it might create.

"If we start moving it up earlier in June, we're competing with the NHL and the Stanley Cup finals, the NBA finals," he said.

Orridge said this year was a learning experience for him, and he's excited about the future.

"I spent my first season this year watching, listening, learning, and doing and I look forward to engaging our board of governors as we move ahead," he said. "I have every confidence the CFL is going to reach greater heights in the years to come."

He said he thinks some of the league's current challenges are only growing pains.

“Transitions, and transformation are not always smooth, but a bit of turbulence is something you go through at times of gaining altitude.”

It's certainly a transition and a transformation under Orridge, and it's a bold one. The key question is if his moves to try and attract a younger audience will pay off, and if they'll be able to keep the existing audience and fanbase as well. We're getting a better look at what he and the league are made of; now, we'll see how that goes over with fans, and if it will help the CFL continue to rise.