A few months ago, I wrote an article explaining why I would be ditching the NFL for the Canadian Football League. I’ve been a CFL fan since I was 8 when my grandpa took me to Vancouver to fish. After getting off the plane, Poppa went straight to bed, and I went straight to the TV and TSN, where the Calgary Stampeders were playing the Edmonton Eskimos. From that day on, just like the salmon, I was hooked.

In his 7 years as CFL commissioner, Mark Cohon has been responsible for the Ottawa RedBlacks expansion team, the Touchdown Atlantic series, where one game a year is played in New Brunswick, and a new, 5-year, $215 million TV deal with TSN (about 2.5 times as much as the previous deal).
In his 7 years as CFL commissioner, Mark Cohon has been responsible for the Ottawa RedBlacks expansion team, the Touchdown Atlantic series, where one game a year is played in New Brunswick, and a new, 5-year, $215 million TV deal with TSN (about 2.5 times as much as the previous deal).

Luckily for me, one of my readers happened to be childhood friends with Mark Cohon, the commissioner of the CFL. The reader sent Mr. Cohon my blog, put us in touch and last week, I had the privilege of interviewing the Commissioner. Here is the result:

Joe Levin: I assume that the CFL is trying to get as many games televised as possible in America. Is this true?

Mark Cohon: This year, we had a few games on the NBC Sports Network, six on ESPN2 and the remainder on ESPN3, their [ESPN’s] digital platform. We want to obviously increase our exposure in the United States, primarily because half of our rosters are American players, so this is a great recruitment tool for us. We don’t look at it like a big economic opportunity for us. We really look at it as a recruitment tool, so players in the States, see our game, understand our game, and are inspired to come and play here. It helps I think in our recruiting, and it helps the players that are in our league—like I said half of our rosters are American—it helps their families follow them down in the states as well.

JL: Are you trying to get more games on TV, or are you happy with where you are now?

MC: Our ratings were very strong. They were similar to the average ratings they [ESPN and NBCSN] have, so there was a lot of interest, and I think if we grow with a partner like ESPN or NBCSN, then I think we will be able to get more and more people following our game. As we know, football is loved in the United States, whether it’s NFL or college football. I went to college at Northwestern, and I was talking to the athletic director while I was there to speak to some students there a year ago. He was doing a tour across the country of campuses to look at redoing some of their athletic facilities, and he said that most universities where they have information about student-athletes who went on to play professional sports, a lot of them have a list of NFL players and a lot of them have a list of CFL players. We know that we are an aspirational league for many established players in the States and getting on TV is important for us.

JL: While we’re talking about getting American players, as an American, I am contractually obligated to ask about Tim Tebow. 

MC: What we have is a negotiation list or a “neg list”. So our teams and scouts can be down in the United States, see a player and put them on the “neg list”. Tim Tebow is on the “neg list” of the Montreal Allouettes, and they have said to him if you’re interested, come talk to us. Our game, as you know, is a much different game, and the question really becomes can he succeed here, and whether he choses to talk to our guys, we’ll see. I register our contracts, so if he’s interested, it will come across my desk.

Major props to Tebow for (nearly) predicting the final score of the National Championship in his ESPN Analyst debut (he predicted 35-31 FSU, 1 point off fromt the 34-1 FSU victory). I'd be giving him much bigger praise if he won a Gray Cup.
Major props to Tebow for (nearly) predicting the final score of the National Championship in his ESPN Analyst debut (he predicted 35-31 FSU, 1 point off from the 34-1 FSU victory). I’d be giving him much bigger praise if he won a Gray Cup.

JL: My dad and I were talking about how the CFL is wide open. There’s a bigger field, more players, movement before the snap of the ball. Everyone knows about the NFL’s problems with knee and head injuries, it seems to me that one day the NFL would look a lot more like the CFL than it does today. What are your thoughts on that?

MC: It’s interesting. We have spoken to the NFL about if they widen the field and do they make it more open. We haven’t done the analysis of whether we have less knee injuries or ankle injuries. We do know that for the number of plays we have and the number of players who get a concussion we have, the numbers are pretty similar to the NFL’s. So, I’m not sure about whether the field actually has an impact on the type of injuries that you have. We’re gonna start to do some more of that research to see what kind of plays are happening to determine what changes are needed. There are some different rules [in the CFL], though. Our kick return rule, for example. There is a five-yard halo around the kick returner, so there are some things that protect the kick returner unlike in the NFL.

JL: The CFL just had its expansion draft for the Ottawa RedBlacks. There have been two other teams in Ottawa in the CFL’s history, as recently as 2006. What makes the RedBlacks different from the other, now failed, franchises? Why will they work?

MC: I think there are a couple of different reasons. In the past we had had, what I would call, absentee owners: owners who didn’t live in Ottawa and didn’t have their roots in the city. Now we have a group of owners that are business leaders and community leaders in Ottawa. These are the guys who, when you go to the opera or the hospital, their names are on the buildings. On top of that, they have put together a half-a-million dollar sports complex in Ottawa that will be a city within a city. It will be an unbelievable destination, almost like Staples Center in LA. The third thing is, you just talked about the expansion draft, and we did an expansion draft that was very favorable for them. Now they get Kevin Glenn as their starting QB, who’s been one of the best players in our league for the last decade. They’re going to be competitive. With the right ownership, right facility, and a competitive team, the RedBlacks will be successful.

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon speaks to the media after the official launch and team announcement for the Ottawa RedBlacks last June. (Darren Brown/QMI Agency)
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon speaks to the media after the official launch and team announcement for the Ottawa RedBlacks last June. (Darren Brown/QMI Agency)

JL: Everyone down here is freaking out over the possibility of a cold weather Super Bowl, and you just had—well, you pretty much always have—a cold weather Grey Cup. Do you have any advice for Roger Goodell?

MC: Dress warm. We were lucky. We’ve had Grey Cups in the past where it’s been negative 30°C with wind and snow, and this year it was -35°C with the wind-chill and a couple of players got frostbite the day before the game, but the day of the game was -7°C or -8°C, not too bad. But I think that’s part of the lore and history of our game. Our fans like it, they’ve learned to dress warm, and be apart of the Grey Cup experience.

JL: Last thing: if you ever need an intern in the future, you have my email.

MC: Let me know as you get a little bit older, and you’re putting your resume together. I’d be happy to continue to talk to you.

JL: I will definitely do that. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this with me.

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