55 Yard Line - CFL

One of the key issues raised this morning at the state of the league address given by CFL commissioner Mark Cohon (pictured, right) this morning was complaints made by several Alouettes players about favouritism, which made headlines from Edmonton to Toronto to Montreal [French].

Here's what Boulay had to say:

"It seems like a slap in the face to me, I'd be crazy to think otherwise. It's obvious that they've put Saskatchewan in the five-star hotel where they have a nice fitness room. ... They have proper meeting rooms. They put us in a little hotel with inadequate meeting rooms. There is no pool, no whirlpool, no way to have ice baths."

And Proulx:

"It seems like the league wants to create problems by imposing all sorts of somewhat bizarre things (on us). It's clear they want Saskatchewan to win the (Grey Cup) game. ... I'm making a shocking statement, but I don't care because I've seen this going on since I've been in the CFL. ... It's even worse this year than last year. Once again, we are in the inferior hotel, there is no workout room in our hotel; we don't have an ice bath or a pool. We have the small visiting dressing room and we're not allowed to use the weight room (at Commonwealth)."

The complaints, originally made on Montreal's CKAC and quickly gaining notoriety as "Hotelgate" (credit to Bruce Arthur), were a hot topic at Cohon's press conference and were raised in the very first question, from a Radio-Canada reporter:

"Alouettes players have been critical of the facilities they've been using so far this week," he said. "How do you explain the fact that the league gave the Grey Cup to a city where the facilities might not be where some players would like them to be?"

Cohon said he wouldn't respond to that, but talked about the Alouettes' organization instead.

"I heard some of those comments from players that I'm not going to dignify with a response, but there are a couple of things I'd like to step back and talk about that are important," he said. "The Als are a class act. If you look at our franchises across this country, and the success our franchises have had the Als are at the top; selling out every game, rebuilding football in Quebec from 3,000 kids playing to 40,000 kids playing. I don't think in any way this will affect their performance on the field because they are such a class organization."

He said he doesn't think the situation's going to be a big deal.

"It really comes down to availability and what's available at the time," Cohon said. "It's unfortunate, but as I said, in talking to Coach Trestman about this yesterday, we had a very good conversation about this, and in no way will it impact the Als in terms of their performance on Sunday."

Cohon also took umbrage at the suggestion that Edmonton's facilities were inferior or that the league was somehow biased against the Alouettes.

"Regarding Edmonton, Edmonton is a city like no other that's putting on an amazing festival," he said. When we go and book our hotels, we go and book the best possible hotels. Just so you know for your own information, when we're in the West, the West is always the home team and when we're in the East, the East finalist is always the home team. We look for the best hotels. If the Tiger-Cats were in or the Argonauts were in, that would be the hotel they'd stay in."

Proulx and Boulay's comments focused on conditions at their hotel, the Chateau Lacombe, where the media lunch was held yesterday. The Riders are staying at the Sutton Place Hotel, which has hosted most of the league events, including this morning's state of the league address. There was no easily perceptible difference between the two hotels from my time at each, but the Alouettes' concerns apparently centre around pool/gym access. According to hotels.ca, the Chateau Lacombe (which has a 7.4 rating overall and a 69 per cent recommend rating) does have fitness facilities, but how extensive they are isn't specified. By contrast, the Sutton Place has an 8.0 rating and a 89 per cent recommend rating. It mentions a sauna and spa tub, plus discounted access to a nearby fitness centre (which the Riders are apparently using), so there might be something to the Als' complaint that Saskatchewan has a nicer hotel.

Similarly, they do have a point on the locker rooms. The Riders are using the Eskimos' room, which was newly renovated earlier this year (and featured by the league this summer). It includes massive hot and cold tubs, more equipment storage and more room overall; it's reasonable to expect the visitors' locker rooms the Alouettes are using aren't as nice.

However, concluding that this shows league bias in favour of Saskatchewan is just wrong. For one thing, locker rooms are assigned based on which conference is hosting the Grey Cup. The 2007 and 2008 editions saw Toronto and Montreal host the game, so Winnipeg and the Alouettes got the home locker rooms. The 2009 and 2010 editions were in Calgary and Edmonton, so Saskatchewan received the home locker room both times. That's not bias, that's established precedent. The hotel situation is more questionable, but I find it hard to believe that's out of intent on the league's part. Perhaps there wasn't anything with more fitness facilities available, or perhaps the league just didn't investigate the setup thoroughly. Either scenario seems far more likely than the CFL setting out to sabotage one of its teams.

It's understandable why there might be a perception of bias in favour of the Riders, though. After all, they continually drive TV ratings and merchandise sales, and Saskatchewan fans were honoured with the Commissioner's Award Thursday night. That subject also came up at the press conference today, with one journalist asking "What does giving a trophy to Riders fans say to the other fans around the league?"

"When you look at our fans, we have the greatest fans in this country," Cohon responded. "Rider Nation, they're celebrating 100 years, but when you look at their fan base, 10 of the 18 games with over a million viewers were games the Saskatchewan Roughriders were in. When you look at visiting teams filling up stadiums, they fill our stadiums. They're about half of our licensing business, so they ooze pride, and that pride actually helps the entire league. In no way are we saying that they're better than other fans. I love walking out there and spending time with Lions' fans and Als' fans. It's recognizing people who have had a profound impact on our game and celebrating that."

Another journalist asked "How beneficial is it to the league's bottom line to have the Riders in the Grey Cup?" Cohon's response focused on the merchandising and TV ratings aspects, saying "When the Riders are in, the numbers are big." It's not hard to see how another team could look at that and conclude bias. However, it's important to remember that the league doesn't have any reason to favour a team in this game; both fanbases will tune in regardless. If anything, you could make a case that the league would have an interest in who gets to the Grey Cup, not who wins it, and it would be incredibly dangerous for them to take any action on that front. Competitive integrity is crucial to sports, and once the questions start being raised, it's tough to get away from them; take a look at the issues the NBA is still dealing with.

Cohon also was asked about Canadian content in the league and the questions he faced around that at last year's state of the league address, with a potential decrease in Canadian players perhaps considered in this year's new collective bargaining agreement. That didn't happen, and Cohon said he's proud of his record on Canadian talent.

"You have to trust us that we understand how important Canadians are," he said. "We proved that with our collective bargaining agreement, we have a Canadian quarterback in the league right now, we've done some changes to bring Canadian quarterbacks to E-camp, to bring Canadian quarterbacks to training camp without taking up a roster spot and to bring CIS quarterbacks to training camp as well, so we're proud of what we've done to focus on the Canadian content."

I asked about the appearance Canadian quarterback Danny Brannagan (pictured, right) made for Toronto this year, what that meant for the league and the Canadian quarterback movement and if the league would ever consider changing their rule that doesn't consider quarterbacks' nationality (unlike every other position on the field). Cohon's response wasn't definitive, but it did provide some hope for those of us who would like to see more Canadian signal-callers under centre in the CFL.
"Sitting here as commissioner, I love that Danny is in our league," he said. "I love that he got to play some time against the Als towards the end of this season. Do you know how many e-mails I got from fans that were excited? People saying ‘My kid is watching'? I think what we've done is we've made some steps. We brought him out to E-Camp, Jim Barker saw him and said "I'll give him a chance." We're making those steps, and I think in the offseason and in the coming years we're going to focus those discussions with our general managers and with our owners. There is potential, and I'd love to see more Canadian quarterbacks."

Another issue Cohon was asked about by CBC's Malcolm Kelly was why Atlantic Canada is perennially mentioned in expansion rumours while Quebec City isn't. He delivered a bit of a curious response, citing Laval's role in the market.

"One, I think it's the stadium there," Cohon said. "Number two, with the Rouge et Or there, they already have their football there."

He also said that the Alouettes have territorial rights to the entire province, something that surprised many observers.

"Their territorial rights are all of Quebec," Cohon said.

He said he's spoken with Laval officials in the past, but they didn't show much interest in the CFL.

"In 2007, I did have a discussion with officials from the university on expansion money for their stadium, and it was focused on the university, it wasn't focused on building a [CFL] stadium," Cohon said.

Cohon also said the Alouettes might be open to the possibility of a Quebec City team, but it would involve substantial negotiations.

"That would be a negotiation we would have to have," he said. "We haven't had those kind of discussions yet with them, but if we ever did go there, it would have to be a negotiation, because those are part of those rights.

For now, he's focusing on the possibility of Atlantic expansion.

"How do we unite this country and this league coast to coast?" Cohon asked. "One of the potentials is certainly a team in Atlantic Canada."

Speaking of uniting the league coast-to-coast, Cohon said that every CFL market should be able to host a Grey Cup in the near future; Winnipeg and Hamilton after getting new stadiums, while the rest could play host at any time. In particular, he said another Grey Cup in Saskatchewan doesn't rely on having a new facility there.

"Every market will have a Grey Cup," he said. "Going back to Regina is not predicated on a new stadium."

Speaking of stadium issues, Winnipeg's appear to be heading towards resolution. Cohon backed up comments he made to me at breakfast Thursday when asked about the Winnipeg situation by Gary Lawless of The Winnipeg Free Press.

"I don't want to steal any thunder from any announcement the premier will make in short order following the Grey Cup, but I'm confident things are moving forward and I'm confident that stadium project is moving forward," Cohon said. "The specifics of that, in terms of the economic model, what it means for the team, what it means for the community teams involved, are to come."

TSN's Dave Naylor asked about the possibility of bringing in American officals, which Cohon shot down, citing the difficulties in adapting to the Canadian game for officials unfamiliar with it.

"I think you really have to come up in our game," he said. "I'm proud of the work our guys do."

Cohon also weighed in on the NFL Network deal the league signed this year. He said it's drawing decent ratings that the NFL is happy with, but it's also providing prospective American players more glimpses of the CFL and allowing families of current players to watch.

"It's a great recruitment tool for us," Cohon said.

The deal was only for this season, but Cohon expects to have talks with the NFL about renewing it.

"We'll have those discussions, probably in the new year."

He also spoke about the importance of the Grey Cup, citing the 43 per cent of Canadians who watched last year and the $100 million in economic activity it usually provides to host cities.

"This is mission critical to our league," he said.

Cohon said he's focused on bringing young people to the game through the web, social media and other initiatives. He recognizes that football isn't an exclusive market any more, especially among young people.

"75 per cent of our fans are also NFL fans," he said.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, as it allows the league to pick up some younger fans who might have only followed the NFL previously.

"Young people are coming to our game," Cohon said. "There are a lot of things we're doing on the social media side to draw a new generation."

Overall, Cohon's quite happy with where the league is at.

"We're resolutely proud of where we've come," he said. "We're looking forward to the future because the future is bright."

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