Mark Cohon visits Mount Allison

CFL Commissioner speaks of aspiration and the turnaround league.

8616361213_078b0386aeThe commissioner of the Canadian Football League (CFL), Mark Cohon, was in Sackville last week as part of the Ron Joyce Centre Presents speaker series, speaking about how he has helped turn the CFL around since being named commissioner in 2007.

During his speech, delivered to a fairly crowded Brunton Auditorium, Cohon recounted some of the trials and tribulations he encountered in his early days as commissioner, which included in-fighting among the owners and teams close to bankruptcy. Mixing in personal stories and recollections, Cohon described the turnaround the league has experienced since then, and his role in getting things kickstarted. He also cracked jokes about his first CFL Draft as commissioner, as well as having Justin Bieber headline the halftime show of the 100th Grey Cup this past November.

“Being a fan myself growing up, and going to (Toronto) Argonaut games, I could definitely see it’s a fan-driven league,” Cohon said following his speech. “My first visit to Regina was amazing; just seeing the passion that the fans have there, and their receptiveness and willingness to interact.”

Cohon mentioned the new franchise in Ottawa several times during his speech, and said it was something he had on his agenda even before taking the job. “My first question was, how do we get back into our nation’s capital? It’s taken a while to get the stadium deal done with the city, but it has been resolved.” Ottawa will be fielding a team in 2014 for the first time since the Renegades folded after the 2005 season.

“Over the next few months we’re going to be pretty involved in the decision-making in terms of the logo and name; our league’s marketing people are working hand-in-hand with the team’s.”

With the third Touchdown Atlantic game in the past four seasons upcoming this September, Cohon says the conversation has been started towards getting a tenth franchise, but says it is still only a conversation at this point, and the right people have to be in place for a tenth team to arise once Ottawa’s new team is off the ground.

Using a couple of videos as evidence, Cohon explained how the 100th Grey Cup helped show off the league to the whole country, explaining how it was a culmination of the turnaround.

“We had to put everything in the window to understand and appreciate how much this sport means to the country,” said Cohon. “It really re-awakened the passion in Toronto and Southern Ontario.”

Cohon said afterwards that presenting the Grey Cup is his highlight every year. “I have to pinch myself and ask if it’s real every time I do it,” he smiled. “I have been lucky enough to be present for Anthony Calvillo’s passing yards record, Ben Cahoon’s receptions record, Geroy Simon’s receiving yards record; those are memorable moments.”

Another highlight for the commissioner is phoning the inductees to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame to inform them of their selection for induction. “Telling them they’re being inducted and hearing these tough warriors break down on the other end of the line…you’re a part of something that is historic and exciting.”

Cohon also answered questions as to how Canadian Interuniversity Sport is valuable to the CFL, and how the CFL can help promote those athletes. “Through things like the East-West Bowl, new regional Combines, and using the media exposure we have we’re helping build a profile.”

He described the growth of the CFL draft, for example, now an annual special on TSN, contrary to his first year, which “felt like something out of Wayne’s World” with its low budget and profile, and distribution on the web filmed in his Toronto office.

Using the term “aspirational” several times throughout his speech and his interview with The Argosy afterwards, Cohon said the important thing is being the best.

“Having the best players, the best product on the field, the best broadcast; it’s about getting young people to play or be a fan. Aspiration can be a powerful thing moving forward.”

Looking ahead, Cohon said the league is set for a very bright future over the next few years.

“With new stadiums opening in Winnipeg this year, Hamilton next year, and Ottawa coming back in 2014, there’s an unbelievable momentum,” said Cohon excitedly, also mentioning a new television deal extension with TSN starting in 2014. “It’s a great starting line for our next generation of fans of the CFL.”

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