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Naylor: Life is good at the moment for commissioner Cohon

David Naylor
11/26/2010 3:20:07 PM
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Being the commissioner of the Canadian Football League has not always been an enviable job.

At various times it has required someone who could be part used-car salesman, part magician and part fireman, the joke being that the title came with a rubber coat and hose, since invariably there would be fires to be put out and crisis to solve.

It also required someone to see the future in bright colours since the reality was often bleak. And so the annual Grey Cup Friday commissioner's address could be as much about hearing someone reaffirm their faith in the league's resiliency as it was about getting a true sense of where things stood.

Half-empty stadiums, cut-and-run owners, revenue shortfalls and championship games with buckets of tickets to sell are just a few of the issues that have wound up on the commissioner's plate to address during Grey Cup week.

It's been an awfully long time since any commissioner has been able to deliver such a buoyant report on the league's affairs as Mark Cohon did Friday morning in Edmonton.

Before a backdrop of a city that sold all 62,000 tickets for Sunday's game between Montreal and Saskatchewan prior to the start of the season; Cohon was able to convincingly paint a picture of a league that has left behind the shackles of survival mode.

Instead he talked about the league's relevance as expressed through record television ratings, sellout crowds and partnerships for strong sponsorship and most importantly stadium building.

There was Ottawa's return to the CFL in 2013 and a vision towards Atlantic Canada after that.

There's no sexy answer to how things have turned around for the CFL in recent years.

It's come from an approach rooted in slow and steady progress and playing to its strengths. And it also hasn't hurt that the league is riding the wave of Canadiana that led up to the Vancouver Olympics and continues to this day, where once being part of that picture wasn't necessarily a strength.

And as the league begins to sell its game to an audience that doesn't remember the Las Vegas Posse, Lonnie Glieberman or the summer of '03 when both the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts went broke, there is every reason to believe it's image and position will continue to strengthen. (And at the risk of sounding biased, many have commented that league's fortunes have been helped immensely by the profile and treatment it receives on TSN).

So have all the bogeymen that were threatening the league's very existence all gone away.
Well, not completely.

The CFL remains a league where things can change quickly and in which the margin for error remains small, and the importance of perception huge.
The most significant issue remains Toronto where the country's biggest market and corporate headquarters has been a little slow to follow the lead in the rest of the country.

The Argos, despite a 9-9 record this season after a three-win campaign a year ago, still draw the league's smallest crowds and it is still hard to find a palpable buzz about the CFL beyond it's hard core of fans. (Consider that the Argos largest gate for a "home" game this season was in Moncton, N.B., a market one-forty-fifth the size of the GTA).

Only a year ago, the league couldn't find anyone who wanted to own the team after Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon decided that they had enough.

And while the ownership of David Braley, also owner of the B.C. Lions, hasn't worked out badly so far, the optics still aren't great. And it's fair to suggest that a truly successful league shouldn't have trouble find an owner for a team its biggest market.

Meanwhile, in the background still lurks the threat of an NFL invasion in Southern Ontario, dismissed by many as sheer paranoia (or wishful thinking depending on your football tastes) but something that can't be ignored until the future of the Buffalo Bills beyond 92-year-old owner Ralph Wilson is established.

"I'm having a good time," said Cohon Friday morning when asked whether he saw himself remaining on the job beyond the expiration of his five-year contract in March of 2012.
Indeed he must be, in a way so many of his predecessors could only have dreamed.

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