These are heady times for the Canadian Football League.
It has a new contract extension with Reebok, one of its teams (Winnipeg) moved into a new stadium this year with another (Hamilton) scheduled to do so in 2014, the same time expansion Ottawa will return and play at a refurbished facility Lansdowne Park. And revenues will increase dramatically next season when a new television agreement kicks in.
'Clearly our future is bright and I'm confident about it.' - CFL commissioner Mark Cohon
But with the CFL's collective bargaining agreement set to expire prior to the start of training camp, commissioner Mark Cohon preached the importance of financial responsibility Friday at his annual state of the league address.
"Clearly our future is bright and I'm confident about it," Cohon said from Regina, site of Sunday's 101st Grey Cup. "We can continue to grow and build that modern and innovative CFL but only if we resist that temptation of going back to the old, reckless financial ways of the CFL."
In March, the CFL and TSN agreed to a five-year broadcast agreement reportedly worth $43 million annually, more than 2 1/2 times the existing deal which expires at season's end. The financial boost will mean increased payments from the league to its teams.
But money will undoubtedly be a hot-button topic when the CFL talks turkey with the CFL Players' Association, which will want the league's $4.4 million salary cap to increase significantly. Past negotiations have traditionally been amicable but could heat up when it comes to dividing up the financial pie this time around.
"We have a great amount of respect between our two organizations," Cohon said. "We have a good working relationship, we're very transparent in terms of them understanding our businesses, our challenges, the opportunities.
"We'll negotiate a fair and reasonable deal that is in the best interests of our teams, players and fans … We must remain prudent and smart about our business."
In the late 1990s, the CFL nearly folded and endured several lean years despite signing a then-record $15.6-million, three-year TV deal with Carling O'Keefe (1981-'83).
Cohon said despite the CFL's growth, challenges remain. They include: continuing to put the Toronto Argonauts on sound financial footing; Winnipeg servicing a long-term debt; the Saskatchewan Roughriders investing $50 million into a new facility slated to open in '17; and expansion Ottawa managing a long-term investment at Lansdowne Park.
"The league must invest in new technologies to make sure we're talking to our fans wherever they may be," Cohon said. "These are some of the examples and challenges we have as we grow."
Ottawa will take a significant step towards stockpiling its roster with the CFL expansion draft Dec. 16. The existing eight teams will be forced to protect a certain number of players, with the Redblacks then allowed to pick from those left unprotected.
However, fans won't know which players are and aren't protected because teams won't have to divulge that information. That's drawn the media ire and Cohon explained the decision Friday.
"We need to protect that relationship between the players and coaches," Cohon said. "My job is to protect the integrity of the game … I'm agreeing with the wishes of our coaches and players on that front."
CFL GMs will also face having to make key decisions in February about free agents without a clear indication regarding what the salary cap will be because a new collective bargaining agreement won't likely be signed until June.
"That's why they're smart coaches and good business people," Cohon said. "(It's) part of the challenge of this timing with the CBA."
Highlights of Cohon's presentation included:
- Corporate sponsorship is at the second-highest level ever, exceeded only by last year when the CFL celebrated its 100th Grey Cup celebration.
- League merchandise is up seven per cent overall.
- With Hamilton playing its home games at 13,000-seat Alumni Stadium in Guelph, Ont., CFL attendance dipped four per cent to an average of 27,017. Excluding the Ticats' home figures, overall attendance increased 1.5 per cent to an average of 28,963.
- The CFL is contemplating having Ottawa and Hamilton open '14 on the road to give both extra time to ensure their stadiums are ready to go.
One suggestion for boosting attendance has been for the CFL to kick off its season a few weeks earlier in June although that could put the league in direct competition with the NHL during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"Our biggest revenue for teams comes through people in the stands," Cohon said. "We're open to exploring it if it makes sense on the business front.
"It's all down to a business case for us."
Southern Ontario continues to be a focal point for the CFL, although there's optimism with the Ticats seeing as they're moving into a new stadium. Earlier this year, it was announced the Argos will leave Rogers Centre following the 2017 season, putting the franchise on the clock to find a new venue.
Tim Leiweke, the president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, has said the Argos "are part of the conversation" about sharing a revamped BMO Field with Major League Soccer's Toronto FC. While a move to BMO would seem to make the most logical sense, Sen. David Braley, who owns the CFL franchise, says several municipalities are interested in building a stadium for his team to play in.
"The Argos have a great opportunity ahead of them," Cohon said. "That solid deadline is allowing David Braley, and with the support of the league, to have smart conversations with the city and with municipalities about the future of the Argos.
"I do believe we will find a home for the Argos in the coming years."