CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge gets down to business

Given all the things new CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge has had to deal with since taking office on April 29, he could be forgiven for feeling stressed out. But Orridge is tackling the job head on and talking a smooth game, writes Malcolm Kelly.

New league boss already a busy man

Jeffrey Orridge has been faced with many key issues since taking over as the CFL's commissioner in late April. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Orridge's office at the Canadian Football League is immaculate — if you went looking for a speck of dust, you might be disappointed. 

His light blue shirt is perfect, matched tastefully with his tie. No jacket needed, but it's hanging on the leather-bound chair behind. In front of him the desktop is clear of refuse, polished and orderly, pens in their place, wooden card holder lined up nicely.

Given what the new commissioner of the nine-team loop has had to deal with since taking over on April 29, one might have expected a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, with sweat stains under each arm pit, an open collar and dark rings under his eyes.

Undeterred, the first question from a correspondent in a Tuesday afternoon one-on-one at the Toronto head office seems appropriate: How are you doing?

"I'm doing fantastic," he says. "This role has exceeded my expectations."

And that's a launch pad for a list of new partnerships with Whistle Sports ("which brings in millions of millennials to consume CFL content and the stories off the field") and Shaw Communications ("where they will be the first presenting partner of the Grey Cup and the 103rd Grey Cup in Winnipeg), plus the CFL draft ("where we help Canadians' dreams come true), and the extension of the TSN/RDS TV deal ("a chance to expand our relationship with a valued and trusted partner").

Orridge is good at this. Marketing talk. Straight to the key message words. Positive adjectives at the ready.

Football outsider

The 55-year-old certainly has the background as a Harvard-educated lawyer whose first foray into sports came in 1981 with the original NBA Dream Team while he was head of business and legal affairs with USA Basketball, the organization that runs the international game there. 

He would also serve as chief operating officer of Right to Play, the Toronto-based, world-wide charitable organization that brings sport to poor, underprivileged and isolated children, then take over in 2011 as the executive director of CBC Sports.

This is how Orridge is seen in many circles — a non-football guy who never played the Canadian game, brought in to open markets and expand revenue while the staff that handles on-field issues continues to do its thing.

"You know what?" he says, laughing. "I think the skill sets I bring to the table are certainly applicable for this time in the CFL's history. The fact I have a marketing background, a licensing background, that I've been involved in some of the more complicated deals in North America in my more than 20 years in sports."

Plus, he ticks off, there's the business background (Mattel, Reebok) and his experience in media contract negotiations.

As for not having played Canadian football …

"I would certainly say to people who have said that … there are plenty of OBGYNs who have never been pregnant, and they do a wonderful job in delivering kids. They didn't hire me to do the operations, they hired me to help the hospital run."

Drug policy under fire

Much of what's happened in the first two months of Orridge's tenure had already been pretty much decided before he entered the corner office on Toronto's Wellington Street, where the league's digs can only be found if you know where they are.

  • The long-awaited sale of the Toronto Argonauts by David Braley, who had once saved them himself, to Bell Media (owners of TSN) and Larry Tanenbaum, a deal that also includes a welcome move from the cavernous and rarely available Rogers Centre, to much more intimate BMO Field next year.
  • The TV deal, one that's interesting because while running CBC Sports, Orridge believed the league needed to be shown on more than one network and tried to get a piece of the pie for the national broadcaster.
  • New stadiums in Hamilton and Winnipeg were complete, the renovation of B.C. Place and Ottawa's digs for the Redblacks' arrival were finished, and construction of Regina's brand-new park was already well underway.

What wasn't expected was a blowup in the national media over the league's drug testing policy — controversy that has been bubbling since the new century began and had resulted in the CFL's first official policy back in 2010.

That policy came under direct fire in the media by Dr. Christiane Ayotte, the head of doping control at the Montreal lab handling the tests for the league, and by the world anti-doping agency WADA.

Orridge, who seems genuinely passionate about his opposition to performance enhancers, nonetheless ended the league's relationship with the lab and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, and angrily defended the CFL in the Tuesday interview.

One day later, his office announced it was entering negotiations with the CFL Players' Association to change the drug rules, tightening them up. No time frame was given, however, and that's going to be interesting to watch as the season unfolds.

More work to do

There are other issues that will squarely be on Orridge's desk:

  • How to protect quarterbacks from getting injured. This may require new rules and guidelines for officials right away.
  • Handling on-going questions about expansion to Atlantic Canada, or Quebec City. Orridge said in the Tuesday talk that "it's not just building a stadium," and more of a complete package if a city is interested in approaching the league.
  • Improving the CFL's online presence, multi-screen adaptability and appearance on current and future media platforms. 

The rookie commissioner also has to deal with an often-fractious group of owners and ownership groups, known for their ego and occasional orneriness with each other. 

How will he handle that? 

"I think that one of the challenges that any commissioner has, is to strike that balance between the interests of the teams and the interests of the league," he says. "I think that you need to lead by serving, I think our main purpose here at the league is to facilitate and add value to the teams, so however we can facilitate that value-added equation is probably going to be the hallmark of our collective achievement."

Yep, he's got the patter down. Now, there's the work to do.