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Inside the CFL: One-on-one with the Commissioner

Ted Michaels, CFL Editor

Toronto, ON (Sports Network) - On April 17, 2007, Mark Cohon became the 12th commissioner of the Canadian Football League.

Cohon was a former executive with Major League Baseball International, where he was Director of Corporate and Game Development, and the National Basketball Association

Under his tutelage, the league has seen television ratings grow, franchises become more stable and this season a new concussion policy and drug-testing for players have been instituted.

With the CFL season starting on June 30, Inside the CFL spoke with Cohon about the present, and the future.

Q: What was your perception of the CFL when you started this job, and what's surprised you about the league?

A: My perception was, what a great game, and what a great league. A little too much talk about office and boardroom politics and not enough talk about the game. When I came in, that's what we started to focus on; celebrating the game, celebrating the league, and taking any internal disagreements that would happen at the board level, and keeping them in the family. What was most surprising and maybe that's not the word because I was always a fan, but just how much people loved their teams and loved the Grey Cup.

Q: Taking your comments one step further, did you have to read the riot act to the board of governors about the infamous leaks that always seem to come out of their meetings?

A: I simply said, listen. We have millions of dollars at stake when we do this. This is about our reputation. You see it in every other professional league, where the commissioner protects the integrity of the game. There were a few issues in the first year, then the board got behind me and said you're right. Since then, we haven't had any issues.

Q: What's the toughest battle that you and the CFL continue to fight... perception?

A: I don't think so. When you have 14 million people watching the Grey Cup, when the average ratings on TSN are higher than the average ratings for the NHL on TSN, then it's not perception. The biggest focus for me now, is Southern Ontario. We're very excited about the Tiger-Cats getting a new stadium and we think that will help that franchise immensely. I think bringing the 100th Grey Cup to Toronto is critically important. Toronto's such a competitive sports town, and it's not just about the professional sports leagues. Toronto is the third largest theatre capital in the world. So, we're competing against all those things, and we're focusing on making sure that younger Canadians especially are celebrating the Grey Cup. That's my focus moving forward.

Q: The interruption of the announcement of next year's Grey Cup in Toronto by councilor Doug Ford is now common knowledge. Can the two leagues co-exist if the NFL came to Toronto?

A: One of the reasons why we've been successful, is because we don't speculate on what might happen. When Rogers (Communications, the company that brought the Buffalo Bills to Toronto in an eight-game, five-year series) said they were bringing the Bills here, we said let's focus on improving our league and growing our game. The investments in new stadiums are creating more and more interest in our league, our sponsorships are increasing, more young people are watching our games on television, and that's where we have to focus. To answer the first part of your question, I'm not going to speculate about what he (Ford) said about the NFL. Our success has been on focusing our league. As I said at the time, I think the NFL has a lot of other issues they have to deal with, and thinking about expanding to Toronto is not on the horizon.

Q: The CFL has been proactive in concussion protocols. Talk about that.

A: We sat down a few years ago. Kevin McDonald (VP Football Operations) really spearheaded this. We focused on improving the safety of the players. We put in SCAT2 protocols, which are international protocols in terms of analyzing if a player has a concussion and what are the steps you take before letting a player come back. We did that several years before other pro leagues did that. Our teams also work with IQ helmets, which is a special helmet, so that it a player gets concussed then re-concussed, they can wear the helmet so we can see what type of his affect players. Dave Dickinson (former Calgary and BC quarterback) had to retire because we saw he was getting concussed from light hits. We also brought together all levels of football, from CIS, to minor football to high school football and said it's our job to be leaders and work to inform parents about what happens if their child suffers a concussion. Our job is to be leaders, not just in football.

Q: Equally important, is the new drug-testing of players. Tell us about the approach and the discipline involved if there's a positive test.

A: One of the first things I was asked when I became commissioner 4 1/2 years ago, was when we were going to have a drug policy. We had started to talk with the players union about that, but we had so many others issues to deal with. Now that we have a strong foundation, the union sat down with us and we said, what's important? We both agreed, it was performance-enhancing drugs. We want to make sure that the integrity of the game is upheld on the field. So, in the last collective bargaining agreement, we instituted it. We're doing out out-of-season and in-season testing. We're the first professional sports league in North America to do testing for human growth hormones through blood testing. We also started this year at e-camp, helping CIS players. We tested about 80 young college players. First offense, you go into mandatory testing, second offense is three games, third offense is a year and fourth offense is a lifetime ban.

Q: I guess I don't have to ask you, how pleased the CFL is with TSN as a broadcast partner?

A: You're right. They've been a great partner and have put a lot of weight behind our game. They're doing some great things, like the new show featuring the Argos, called the extra yard, which debuts July 3.

Q: What's the status of Ottawa's return to the CFL? I've heard 2014 is the best-case scenario?

A: That really is. We have a great ownership group and the support of city council, and, they're partners in this project. This has now morphed into a half-billion dollar project, with 120 million for the stadium, but more for the development around the stadium. Our group wants to get it right. We don't want to get the stadium done, rush it, and have a construction site around the stadium. We just got another wave of approval through the Ontario Municipal Board. There's a few more court cases that have to be passed. We're aiming at breaking ground next spring, which would put a team in the league in 2014.

Q: With the success of Touchdown Atlantic, how feasible is it to expect a team in Atlantic Canada?

A: I think we still have a lot of work to do. Touchdown Atlantic was a success last year and will be this year. I think we need to build more corporate support in Atlantic Canada. When the Tiger-Cats are out of their stadium, when it's being rebuilt, can we consider putting a few more games there and testing the market more? I think the fan base is there, but we have to test it more than once or twice.

Q Last question... talk about more CFL games being shown on the NFL Network.

A: Last year we had 14 games. This year we plan on having 38 games, with the NFL Network having the option to show more. For us, it's great for the US-born players. Half of our rosters are American players, and for their families, and college players to see what type of game is played here, is great for recruiting. It also shows out great relationship with the NFL. Last year, the first game that was shown, was the 54-51 win by the Riders over the Als in double overtime. The guys at the network went crazy. It's in about 60 million homes in the States.

Ted Michaels is the host of the Fifth Quarter, on AM 900 CHML.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Ted Michaels at
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