Inside the CFL: Celebrating the centennialJun 7, 2012 - 2:20 PM Hamilton, ON (Sports Network) - It's a good time to be the commissioner of the Canadian Football League.
Mark Cohon, a graduate of Northwestern University, became the CFL's 12th commissioner in April 2007. Under his leadership, the league has enjoyed increased attendance, strong corporate partnerships, new drug and safety initiatives and a big television deal.
The 45-year-old Cohon signed a three-year extension in November.
TSN's "Inside the CFL" talked with Cohon about the upcoming season, which will culminate on Nov. 25 with the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto.
TSN: When you took over as commissioner, I know you had a "wish list" of things to do. Six years later, has that list been whittled down, and what's on the wish list now?
MC: The wish list has been whittled down. We've seen Canadians rally around the league, we've seen our TV numbers soar, we've seen younger people watching our games, we're seeing stadiums being built across the country, and we're seeing a renaissance in the Grey Cup, where it's hard to buy a ticket.
As far as the wish list now, there's lots of stuff. Clearly, the 100th Grey Cup is going to be a major celebration, re-doing our future collective bargaining agreement, renegotiating the television contract in the next 18-24 months, opening up the new stadiums and continuing to grow our game and our brand.
TSN: Speaking of the Grey Cup in Toronto, is this almost a case of the game and the events being a really easy sell?
MC: It's definitely easier, but there's a lot of excitement heading into 2013. The people in Saskatchewan (site of the 2013 Grey Cup) are going to do a wonderful job, and that would be the province to go to after this year's game, because sometimes you think there's a hangover. That whole province is going to invite the country and put on an unbelievable party.
TSN: You talk about the excitement for the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto, but I'm wondering if Toronto is still the toughest nut to crack, as far as getting the people in the big city excited about the CFL?
MC: I think it's the biggest opportunity for us. There's been something like 45 Grey Cups held in Toronto, and if you look at the team on the field this year, there's a lot more excitement. The moves that both the Argos and the Tiger- Cats made, to take the battle of Alberta to Ontario, with Rickey Ray going from Edmonton to Toronto, and Henry Burris going from Calgary to Hamilton, has created a lot of interest around the league and in Toronto.
At the Argos' pre-season game (June 19), they're bringing thousands of school kids out as part of an initiative to get younger kids to come to the games. We've got our work cut out for us, but, clearly, the 100th Grey Cup is going to help us.
TSN: Can you touch upon some of the things the CFL will be doing to commemorate the 100th Grey Cup?
MC: In a few weeks, we're going to announce a major tour of the Grey Cup across the country. TSN and Bell Media are spending millions of dollars to produce eight unbelievable documentaries about important stories of the Grey Cup, which are the stories of our country. Shortly, we'll be announcing some initiatives with the government around collectibles, coins and stamps.
Our sponsors are doing major promotions around the country. If you go to any Cineplex now, you'll see your Grey Cup popcorn pack with Nestle.
TSN: Last year, during the Vanier Cup broadcast, you mentioned that you were hoping the CFL would work closely with the CIS to promote university football. Any progress in those initiatives?
MC: We're looking again at marrying the Grey Cup with the Vanier Cup this year. We sponsor the East-West Bowl, we're working on getting an extra official (seventh) on the field at CIS games to make sure we're developing young officials, and the draft that we do on TSN has become very important for us to profile young, Canadian talent. Having Canadian quarterbacks attend training camps and opening up roster spots is critical.
TSN: Some CFL teams have expressed a little frustration with draft picks choosing to stay in school and not report to camp. Is that becoming more and more problematic?
MC: I've heard some reports about that, but it hasn't been raised up to me. I think in the off-season, one of the things we'll talk about is what should we be doing in terms of the teams' ability to draft a player and making sure that the player has the ability to report to camp and to play.
TSN: You mentioned the TV contract is up next year. Do you anticipate that all the major networks will bid on the rights?
MC: We're in a good position. We're second in ratings in this country, right behind the NHL. I think there'll be a lot of interest. TSN has been a great partner and I know they're definitely interested in working with us in the future. I think these are interesting times for the league, based upon the number of people watching our games.
TSN: Lot's of talk about concussions and the ramifications. How problematic is this issue?
MC: Player safety is critical. I'm the chair of the player safety committee along with members of the players association, so we always talk about this when we meet with the players. When you think about the future our league, the only way we're going to succeed, is if young people are playing our game.
Focusing on concussion management and player safety is critical. About three years ago, we put in protocols that are internationally recognized, in terms of identifying concussions and making sure players don't get back in, if they've been concussed, until they're fully recovered and healed. In addition, last year we did a program that sent out information to thousands of schools, and not just to football teams, teaching coaches and families, the symptoms of concussions and what you should do, if a young player has one.
We have to be at the forefront. In the off-season, we changed the rules, so if a ball carrier loses his helmet, the play is automatically ruled dead. The same if a player loses his helmet and engages in a play, their team will be penalized. When I do tours of training camps, I talk to players about player safety and our focus on that.
TSN: A very vocal group has been trying everything under the sun to stop the expansion of Frank Clair Stadium in Ottawa. Will the CFL be in Ottawa as planned in 2014?
MC: We're hoping to push for that date. It's all predicated on when we can break ground on the stadium. The goal is to break ground by the end of the summer. If we can do that, and the construction schedule can work, the aim is 2014. But, as we know with major projects, and we see it in Winnipeg, where (the new stadium) it's being pushed back a bit, we want to be cautious. If it's 2014 or 15, we'll know later when we can break ground.
TSN: Is there one big thing that you want to accomplish this season?
MC: I want the season to be competitive and close on the field, but I also want to make sure the 100th Grey Cup is a time that the whole country, stops, pauses and celebrates something that is important to the country, and launches us into the next 100 years.
Ted Michaels is the host of the Fifth Quarter on AM900 CHML.
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