'CFL needs woman commissioner'

Sports Analysis by Nigel Aplin, Sports Editor

Canadian Football League challenged to connect

with younger sports fans to reverse audience slide

CFL at crossroads – time for a woman commissioner?

The Canadian Football League (CFL) has roots that date back nearly 150 years. It has been a staple of sports culture in Canada over much of that time but the league’s recent history is checkered and its popularity has been on a downward slide, particularly in Canada’s largest city. The league must find a way to grow its audience, connect with younger Canadian sports fans, and somehow re-establish its place in Toronto.

News broke last month that the CFL and its Commissioner, Jeffrey Orridge, had agreed to part ways, barely two years into his mandate. In March, 2015, Mr. Orridge became the first black Commissioner of any major North American sports league (I still consider the CFL to be “major” in Canada but I know that this claim will be questioned) and thereby continued its progressive tradition of welcoming and embracing black quarterbacks and hiring qualified black coaches and managers long before the National Football League ever did. Orridge came to the CFL’s top job with an impressive resume in sports marketing and management, having held senior positions at Right to Play and, most recently, as Executive Director of CBC Sports. A native of Queens, New York, Orridge claimed to have always admired the CFL from afar for its hiring practices and its longevity.

After the announcement that he and the league had agreed to part ways, Orridge issued a statement that cryptically explained that he and the CFL Board of Governors “have differing opinions on the future of the league”. The Governors had apparently approved Orridge’s five year plan in November but soured on him only five months later. Perhaps the 2016 Grey Cup was his undoing.

Despite the fact that this past November’s Grey Cup produced a compelling and competitive game (as it almost always does), won by the Ottawa Redblacks, the game was played in Toronto which treated it as a virtual non-event. The game was eventually “sold out” but it was a papered house with many tickets being given away to fill the seats. Orridge cannot be expected to shoulder all of the blame for the ambivalence of Toronto sports fans to the CFL, but responsibility for his disastrous “State of the League” media conference in the days preceding the game must lie mostly at his feet.

Aside from the issues about unsold Grey Cup tickets and the host city’s indifference toward the CFL’s marquee game, Orridge was asked at that fateful press conference about the league’s position on CTE, the degenerative and debilitating brain disease believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. The CFL was then defending (and continues to defend) a $200 million suit brought by former players who claim that the league knowingly exposed them to the risk of CTE without informing them. Orridge’s response to this question likely satisfied the league’s legal team but was a public relations disaster: “The league’s position is that there is no conclusive evidence at this point”, he said. The denial of any link between football and CTE sounded like it came from a 1970s tobacco company playbook and was met with strong criticism from the CFL Players Association and the media. In fairness to Orridge, he was in a difficult position, especially since the NFL had settled a similar law suit of its own in 2015 (by, among other things, agreeing to contribute $1 billion to a fund for retired players suffering from CTE and other concussion related injuries) and after doing so, finally admitted the link between football and CTE. Orridge was in very difficult position that day but the question was an easily anticipated one and the league, his office, players and fans all deserved a more thoughtful and sensitive response than the one he gave.

We will probably never know the contents of Orridge’s now moot five year plan that the Board of Governors (the owners of the nine CFL teams) apparently approved in November. One initiative that Orridge did advance during his truncated tenure as CFL Commissioner was an outreach, in various forms, to the LGBT community. He marched in Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade in June, 2016, spearheaded the launch of a new clothing line which combined CFL team branding and the “You Can Play” banner and he organized and hosted the first ever LGBT Grey Cup party (which was sold out and was, by all accounts, a great success). While the LGBT community may seem like an unlikely source of new football fans, the initiative demonstrated the league’s willingness (or perhaps just Orridge’s willingness) to extend its reach beyond its traditional fan base — particularly in Toronto where support for and interest in the league and its local team, the Argonauts (formed in 1873), has declined precipitously over the past three decades since the team won the Grey Cup in 1983 — its first since 1952. Outreach to the LGBT community was a bold new strategy and Orridge deserves credit for it, regardless of the greater failure of his commissionership.

Did Orridge have other unique and unconventional plans to grow the league’s fan base? And, if so, did the owners push him out because they weren’t comfortable with them? Or was it because of the public relations issues which flowed from his tone-deaf Grey Cup press conference? Or perhaps it was his failure to deliver any improvement in the league’s standing in the Toronto market. Or was it something else? We will probably never know.

So, the CFL finds itself, once again, in need of a new commissioner. As the headline in Doug Brown’s recent Winnipeg Free Press column put it, “Wanted: CEO to Carry Heavy Load in No-win Situation; Apply to the CFL”. Who would want the job anyway? I conducted a very informal survey and the name which kept coming up was Michael “Pinball” Clemons, the beloved former Argonaut star and head coach who has built a very positive public image, particularly in Toronto. Clemons was a vocal supporter of Orridge’s appointment two years ago but if he has any interest in the league’s top job which is now open, he hasn’t said so.

There is another potential candidate who deserves consideration: Karen Stintz. Stintz is a prominent former Toronto City Councillor and former head of the Toronto Transit Commission. She currently serves as President and CEO of Variety Village in Toronto. After Mark Cohon announced his retirement from the CFL Commissioner’s job in 2014, Stintz made known her interest in the job. Obviously she didn’t get it but I think that there are good reasons for her candidacy to now be seriously considered. She would be the first female commissioner of a major sports league in North America, just as Orridge was the first black commissioner. She is well known in Toronto and is generally well respected. She is a good communicator and, in my opinion, fully capable of the fulfilling the official duties of Commissioner. If the future of the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL is the biggest question facing the league (as is widely believed), she clearly has the profile and contacts in Toronto to make a difference on that issue. It may be an impossible task but I would be interested to see how she might approach it.

Mr. Orridge is staying in his position until June 30th and the league is now searching for his successor. History says that it’s a tough gig with a short tenure. While the NFL has seen a grand total of three commissioners since 1960, the CFL has seen 11 commissioners since 1984.  The 2017 CFL season is about to begin with training camps opening later this month and the regular season set to kick off on June 22nd. I hope that the CFL season almost upon us will the first of many under the leadership of Karen Stintz.