Mark Cohon is readying for his first season as CFL commissioner. (Canadian Press)
Q and A
Meet the new boss
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon is ready to push ahead
Last Updated Wed., June. 20, 2007
When the board of governors unanimously voted Mark Cohon as the CFL's 12th commissioner, the members saw a savvy businessman who could not only grow the league economically but also sell the game to a younger generation of fans.
Indeed, the 41-year-old graduate of Chicago's Northwestern University has spent the last 15 years building his reputation as a marketing and business strategist. Cohon, the son of McDonald's Canada founder George Cohon, is not a novice to the world of sports. He worked for NBA commissioner David Stern as vice-president of business development and also as director of corporate and game development with Major League Baseball.
Armed with an unprecedented five-year deal, Cohon officially took office on April 17. He readily admits his predecessor, Tom Wright, left the league in great shape and kept the teams on solid financial ground.
Still, Cohon knows there is much work to be done.
While there are no immediate problems for the football clubs, Cohon faces challenging issues that were partially responsible for Wright's exit. The new CFL boss talked with CBCSports.ca about building the league from the grassroots level, the continuing Ottawa saga, expansion in the Maritimes and his thoughts on the possible implementation of a drug-testing policy for players.
Why was this the right time to accept the position of CFL commissioner?
I love the game. I've worked for Major League Baseball and the NBA. I've run a ticketing business so I think everything that I've done has sort of aligned me to this. Also, being chairman of the Ontario Science Centre, I understand what it means to be the guardian of an institution that's purely Canadian. So I think all of those things came together and it made sense to take this job.
What's been your biggest priority since taking office?
The first thing has been getting out there and listening to the fans and meeting all the teams, so I've travelled around the country. The second priority is understanding how we're going to engage in the next generation of young fans. The league is in good shape now and it's a building time for us. We have to ask ourselves how do we go after parents and sports fans with very young kids in the same way my dad did when he took me to games.
You've been a big proponent of interacting with fans. Have any fans given you intriguing suggestions since you've been in office of how to improve the league?
I actually just spoke to 500 teenagers at Wexford Collegiate in Scarborough, Ont., and I asked them that question. They all said that you have to get us playing. You have to see if the provinces can support kids and bring programs back in the schools. I think those are pretty critical. They also gave me a great idea which I'd love to do at some point. They said we [the CFL] should have an advisory board of young kids across the country advising the commissioner on how to attract that generation. I like that idea and I'm going to see if I can do it.
What has impressed you about Tom Wright's time as commissioner that's allowed you to make a smooth transition into the job?
What's impressed me is that really there are no major fires out there. He sort of paved the way. He might be the first [CFL commissioner] to pave the way in that regard and now I'm the second guy coming in and doing a lot of the building, which I like. I didn't take this job just to sit idle. I took the job because I want to try and make a difference.
What is your vision for the CFL during your tenure?
The first thing is to make sure we continue to have a great product on the field and the games keep getting better. That's part of promoting the game at the grassroots level so more and more kids are playing. Five years from now we'd love to have hundreds of thousands of kids in this country playing the game and aspiring to be in the CFL. The other aspect is clearly a financial one. We want to make sure that the league is financially strong. We have a great television contract [with TSN], we're getting more corporate support and we want to push more licensed products out there. We also want to be relevant to our fans in the community.
Past CFL commissioners, including Tom Wright, haven't had a vote pertaining to important league business. Is that something you would like to see changed?
Most commissioners [in other professional leagues] don't have a vote. It more boils down to the percentages of the votes. I look right now and say, they gave me a five-year mandate and there's consensus around the league right now that it's a building time for the CFL. I believe that if you deliver and you perform and we have some success, then the support from the owners will come.
So you're confident you can get the votes you need when you want an issue addressed?
It depends on what those issues are. I believe if you show leadership and start building a track record of success, it becomes easier and easier.
Now that the league has exhausted three prospective ownership groups in Ottawa, is that city still in the CFL's plans?
We definitely want to figure out whether we can get back into Ottawa. I think there are a number of issues there that we have to face. Is there a new development opportunity with the land surrounding Frank Clair Stadium? We have to do our own investigation and see what the opportunities are. There has been some public discussion about those opportunities and we need to explore that further. But also, we have to look at markets where there's more potential.
Why has football in Ottawa failed twice now in your view?
It's always important to make sure you have the right people in place who understand football. [B.C. owner] David Braley has had success in Vancouver because he has [president and CEO] Bob Ackles and [coach] Wally Buono. I'm not going to make comments on previous [Ottawa] groups, but I think it's very important you make sure you have people who understand the local market and understand the sport. I think that's critical.
Tom Wright was an advocate of expansion into Halifax at some point in the future. Where do you stand on this issue?
I have not been out there yet and I haven't done my due diligence on that market. St. Mary's [University] holds 8,000 people, I believe, and that's not viable from an economic stand point for an expansion franchise. I do know that there are markets like Quebec City where you can get maybe 15,000 people out to a University of Laval game.
The challenge with all these [expansion teams] is that you have to build new stadiums. We have to have that discussion first with all levels of government and local community leaders. We'd also have to obviously look at corporate support before we do that, so I think this would take time.
The CFL has been criticized for not having a drug policy in place. What are your thoughts on the implementation of one for the CFL players?
I've said publicly that I think it's important to have one and we're going to start doing some of that work. I've had initial conversations with [CFLPA president] Stu Laird and we're going to start talking about this over a period of time with the governors. It's something important for the CFL. The league has done a little in the past, but I want to get some more relevant information out there. What are the other leagues doing? What's the appropriate way of approaching this with our players' association? This has to be done in partnership with our players.
Are you convinced you can get this done?
Weíll see how good I am.
In his final state of address, Tom Wright said a rule would be in place before the start of the season that prevents a player under suspension in the NFL from signing with any CFL club. With what happened during Ricky Williamsís brief one-year tenure in Toronto, how do you feel about his rule?
Itís a smart rule because we have to make sure we hold ourselves to a standard that other leagues hold themselves too. If a player canít play in the NFL because heís suspended for a number of different reasons, we should adhere to that as well.