CFL commissioner Mark Cohon talks to Charlie Gillis about NFL incursion

July 30, 2017

When Mark Cohon became commissioner of the Canadian Football League last spring, the perennially dysfunctional league appeared to be gaining momentum. Then, with the Grey Cup scheduled to take place in Toronto, it emerged that two separate groups in the city--including the current owners of the CFL's Argonauts--were vying to bring a National Football League franchise to town. Cohon, the 41-year-old son of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada founder George Cohon, spoke to Maclean's correspondent Charlie Gillis.

I've noticed that your name is no longer always mentioned in the same breath as McDonald's. Is that a nice switch for you?

You know, I grew up with parents I was proud of, and who were proud of me. So if it keeps happening I don't mind. I'm secure with myself.

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Well, your rookie season as CFL commissioner is coming to a close, and the league looks to be in fine health--for now. But there are challenges ahead. Some even fear we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the CFL, with the arrival of the NFL looking more and more certain. Do you feel suddenly responsible for the CFL's survival?

Sure. When you take on the role of commissioner you serve many people. I serve the owners of the teams we have today. I also serve millions of fans and I take that as my key responsibility. Right now, the league's attendance is at its highest since 1983. Our TV ratings have been strong, we have great young Canadians playing in the league, from [Saskatchewan's] Andy Fantuz to [Hamilton's] Jesse Lumsden. This sort of leads into my conversation around the NFL. I view the discussion around the NFL as a potential opportunity. They've helped our league out in the past; in 1995, when the CFL was going through trouble, they gave a loan to our league. The idea is the NFL wants to help the CFL, and if they come here we've got to figure out how to collaborate.

Is having a successful Grey Cup this week vital to showing how important Toronto is to the CFL, and vice versa?

I think it is. I mean, attendance in Toronto is the highest it's been since 1992, and this is both the media capital and the corporate capital of Canada. So if the Argos are successful and Hamilton is successful and we're strong in southern Ontario, it helps our national footprint. It helps with corporate sponsors, it helps with retail and our licensing business, and it helps with perception in the media. Making sure that the Grey Cup is successful here in Toronto will have a big impact on our overall business.

And yet last weekend it seemed like almost every sports fan in this town had one eye on the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots game. Only 33,000 came out to the eastern final at the Rogers Centre versus the 54,000 at the western final in B.C. Place. Why doesn't Toronto embrace the CFL like it used to?

I think the city does embrace the league, actually. The Argos have done a great job at the grassroots level. Last year, they did 780 player appearances, they've done things with [coach] Pinball Clemons like Stop the Violence, they've donated $4 million to the Hospital for Sick Kids. We've just announced today that the Grey Cup is sold out and there's going to be about 300,000 people here over the course of the week celebrating. So I actually think this city has changed its perception around the Argos and around the CFL.

Why are you talking about a partnership with the NFL rather than fighting it?

It's true my first approach is, "Let's see how we can embrace it and look at better and bigger opportunities." But at the same time, my responsibility as commissioner is to our fans, and to this game. If I think [a partnership] is not going to help the future of our league and make sure that CFL three-down football is here for the next 100 years, then we'll have a different discussion. I'm not prepared for that discussion right now. But I have had this conversation with [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell. If the NFL came to Toronto and the Argonauts and Ticats were no longer here, it would have a huge ramification on the CFL as we know it today. So when I go into these talks, my mindset is on the eight teams we have in place, and growing the league.

What, then, might an NFL partnership that allows the Argos and the Ticats to continue to exist look like? Is there enough TV revenue to go around? Isn't the NFL going to suck up all of the advertising and sponsorship money?

I think there's a difference between [the two leagues]. We're very much community-driven. There's a lot of pride about being a Canadian game, and there's a lot of pride about being accessible and participatory. As far as television revenues and sponsorship revenues, those are all part of the future discussion. If an NFL team came here, could we do some programming together down in the States? Can you do events together in celebration of football and share in revenues around that? Can you package Argos and Ticats tickets together with NFL tickets? Can we think about the scheduling of our league and not overlapping with theirs? All those type of things would help us. You also have [prospective NFL owners] Paul Godfrey and Larry Tanenbaum saying, "We want to help the CFL."

Aren't those just nice words, though?

They are nice words, but we'll hold them to it.

What about the CFL owners? They're a notoriously difficult group to unify. Is there consensus among them about what to do?

Part of my job is to build that consensus right now. We have different opinions in terms of how to approach various aspects of our business. But because the league is in good shape right now they're looking for me to take some leadership positions. And my recommendation right now is, "Let's figure out how we can embrace this."

Are you saying they're split?

I don't think there's a 50-50 split or anything. I think people are saying, "Mark, you're the commissioner, let's figure out what you can do." We're not going to resolve this in one month or three months. This is going to be an ongoing dialogue we're going to have to have with the NFL.

It must be hard to have a constructive conversation about this issue when two of the owners at the table, David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski of the Argonauts, are said to want a stake in an NFL franchise.

I think Howard and David looked at that opportunity as how do they look after the franchise and the sport that they've helped grow over the last five years here. Same with Hamilton. How does [Tiger-Cats owner] Bob Young look after the millions of dollars that he's invested into that community? So, if there was any decision taken, it would be based upon what's right for the league.

You've talked about seeding interest in the Canadian game by getting more young people playing it. But the CFL still doesn't have a comprehensive drug-testing policy. Isn't it important for the league to set an example for the youth it wants to join the sport?

I put my neck out on the line very early on in saying this is important. I continue to believe that. After the Grey Cup, our chief operating officer Michael Copeland and I are going to be sitting down with the CFL Players' Association and going through a first draft of[a drug policy]. We've had discussions with the association, and they're open to it. Our owners are open to it. We play leadership roles in our community, so yes, in terms of getting kids active and thinking about drug policy, in terms of ideas that will protect our players, that's a role for the commissioner and that's what I'm going to be pushing.

What about discipline? When you tried to come down hard on A. J. Guss of the Edmonton Eskimos this season for a helmet-throwing incident, the league's one-game suspension got overturned in arbitration. It later turned out the arbitrator was an Eskimos season-ticket-holder This has been portrayed as not being your finest hour

I don't think it's about my finest hour. The issue is that I've inherited a disciplinary system that is broken. The way the process works is that it's based primarily on past precedent. So if a helmet was thrown in 1970 and there was a fine of $100, that factors into something that happens in 2007. And that's wrong. I also believe the players' association needs to take a leadership role in helping define what's acceptable in our league and what's not. In the off-season we talked about sitting down and talking about that, and I'm going to continue to push them. You know, I think that actually that was my finest hour, because I was standing up for the league.

Still, there is the question of how a judge who is an Eskies fan gets appointed arbitrator in this situation.

I'm not going to put this on the judge. Based on our collective bargaining agreements, we select the arbitrator that is closest to the region. That was the arbitrator that was available, and the way our collective bargaining works is that we both agreed on it and we were comfortable with that. I think the judge applied the standard that was in place.

Your appointment was initially received quite warmly, in part because of your experience in business development with the NBA and with Major League Baseball. Did you apply any of that knowledge to tweak the CFL 's brand? I'm thinking of the CFL's "Our Balls Are Bigger" campaign of the mid-1990s. It was funny, but a bit down-market, no?

My first act as commissioner when I came in was taking that off of our website. Our positioning is much more about celebration of Canada, celebration of our game, pro-filing our players, making it accessible, and going after families. I was introduced to football through my father, and it's really about going to a game. Once you go to a game, I think you're hooked.

The league is pitching this week's final as the Green Grey Cup, with a host of environment initiatives attached to it. Isn't there a fine line between sounding noble and sounding a bit gimmicky?

This is not something that's gimmicky to me. I've been chairman of the Ontario Science Centre, I've been president of Earth Rangers, an environmental group. I led an expedition 20 years ago in the Arctic. One of the things I was asked at a high school where I spoke recently was what kind of car I drive. When I said I drive a hybrid, 500 kids stood up and clapped.

I read somewhere that you worked during your youth at the Toronto Zoo. Are there days when you wish you stuck with the monkeys and giraffes instead of going into the parlous business of professional sport?

I love my job, and that's not rhetoric or marketing-speak. I did a lot of due diligence before I took this position. The league was going in the right direction, it had a strong ownership group. Every CEO has different levels of stress, and I'm just managing all this in a very public forum. And I think my owners have been great to date--very supportive. So I'm actually having a lot of fun.

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