Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Mid-Season Chat with the CFL Commish

As he talks, Jeffrey Orridge turns a set of monogrammed leather luggage tags over in his hand, over and over. In his first season as the CFL’s 13th full-time commissioner he has visited every market more than once, with the same pattern: early flight, a stadium tour, meetings with season-ticket holders, the local media, corporate partners. Six months in, Orridge is still acclimating himself to the job.

“There’s more familiarity,” says Orridge, who took the job in March. “More comfort.”

All the essentials are built for ease, right now. Structurally, the league is as stable as it has been for generations. There are new or renovated stadiums built or coming in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, B.C., Regina and soon in Toronto; Montreal and Calgary are fine, while seeking improvements. The ownership in Toronto has been resolved, finally, with the sale to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The TV contract is set, as is the CBA.

No, the central challenge to Jeffrey Orridge is twofold: One, building the league’s profile, which as a TV man and a marketer, he is suited for. And second, the game itself. That one’s a little less in his wheelhouse.

“You know, if we use the analogy of this being a hospital, I wasn’t hired to be a surgeon,” says Orridge, who came to the CFL after a stint at the head of CBC Sports. “I was hired to make a bigger and better hospital. To make it run more efficiently and effectively, and hire the right people who are very skilled but they are specific duties. And so when people say ‘You know you’re not a football guy’ my response is there are plenty of accomplished OB/GYN’s who have never been pregnant. I didn’t have to grow up playing the Canadian football game. I’m a sports guy.”

The game itself has become the central challenge for the league, which is almost a perfect reversal of the days when ownership always had a couple penniless lunatics, but the quarterbacks were boffo. After last year’s creaking, defence-dominated slog, scoring is up from 22.8 points per game last season to just about 25 going into the weekend following some rule changes, and it’s rising, bit by bit. The game-choking blizzard of flags has been slowing for eight weeks now, thank goodness, and the league attributes it to the fact that almost half the league — 46 per cent — consists of first- or second-year players. The games, at least, have been close.

And thanks to injuries, the starting quarterbacks this weekend include Zach Collaros, Bo Levi Mitchell, Trevor Harris, James Franklin, Brett Smith, Tanner Marsh, Brian Brohm or Dominique Davis, and John Beck finishing for the injured Travis Lulay. Quarterbacks are lifeblood for the CFL. Offensive lines, rife with Canadians, are almost as important.

So Orridge has to rely on his football people — on vice-president of football operations Kevin McDonald, and officiating head Glen Johnson. As for the local worries, which are a tradition: Toronto is lost in the fog in its last season at Rogers Centre, despite a good team. But Orridge claims not to be worried that any long-term damage to the fan base is being done.

“The fact that the Argos are a good product on the field, I think that’s going to translate more than anything else,” says Orridge. “I think the other thing is just the newness, the freshness. Where they’re located, the environment that they’re going to be in, the physical environment of BMO Field, the fact that BMO Field has already established itself as a great place to go and hang out, and a social experience.

“You’ve got the downtown core demographic looking for things to do. Those are either Argos fans or they will soon be Argos fans. Because what is going to be sold is the experience, as well as the play on the field.”

Orridge’s plan to sell the league beyond Canada’s borders depends on that experience. As he puts it, “You’ve always had that sense of community in Saskatchewan. But now if you go to Ottawa, it’s a party. Right?” With new stadiums, the CFL wants to build a little of what U.S. college football has wrought — an incredible tribalism that engages the locals, and plays so well on TV that people will watch. If the game is the most important part, the fans are the other. One trick with the CFL has been the attempts at growth, but keeping the essential connection to the fans, on a much more human scale than other sports leagues. Orridge says he recognizes that.

“But they’re not mutually exclusive,” he insists, leaning across his desk. “They are not mutually exclusive. You can be intimate and you can be local and globally recognized at the same time. (U.S. college football) is a good example. You’ve got the committee feel, that connection, that sense of tribalism. But it’s elevated that next level. And it’s the people who do that. It’s the people who create that kind of energy.”

TV, though, is an ever-changing landscape. On the season, the CFL’s TV ratings are hovering just below last year’s average, around 700,000 per game. The league likes to point out this has been accomplished in the face of the Women’s World Cup of soccer, which did monster numbers; the Pan Am Games, whose broadcasting windows did very well; and the escalation of the Toronto Blue Jays, who have become the gorilla in the room.

The Jays are rising, though, and should last into October for the first time in 22 years. Orridge tries to say he’s happy that the Jays are doing well. The impact of those TV ratings, though, is starting to show.

“Overall we haven’t lost that much, in terms of ratings,” says Orridge. “The fact that we’ve managed to maintain our ratings for the most part I think speaks to the resilience of the CFL and the fact that we’ve got a really incredible, avid fan base. And people who are kind of diehards.

“But candidly, competition is always something that we need to be conscious of, and that we need to address. And we’ve got to make sure that our product is as exciting and engaging as possible.”

Orridge can develop the digital side, the marketing, the stadium experience, the distribution. He probably will. But in the CFL it’s the game, always the game. And that, more than anything, will be what he is responsible for. That’s what he’ll have to fix.

(Bruce Arthur-Toronto Star)

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