Since succeeding Tom Wright as Commissioner of the CFL in 2007, Mark Cohon has financially stabilised the league and presided over a period of high attendance figures and strong TV ratings. At the same time, Cohon has had one eye on the future, looking for ways to grow the CFL. Phase one is almost complete, with Ottawa set to rejoin the league within the next two years.
Considering Cohon’s background, it’s no surprise he has been a success as CFL Commissioner. He graduated with a Bachelors of Science majoring in communication studies. He has also been head of international marketing for the NBA and worked as international head of corporate development for MLB.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with the Commissioner at a recent Argonauts event. In the latest of Blue Toro’s new series of monthly interviews, we discussed the Argonauts stadium situation, how long he expects to remain in his job and what he does to relax.
BT: Mr Commissioner, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. What brings you here?
Mark Cohon: Well, I love coming out to support our teams, so whenever they have annual meetings or any events, it’s a great opportunity for me to talk to our fans and get some feedback on what they think is going well with the league, as well as any changes they’d like to see. I also wanted to give an update on how the league’s doing and get everyone ready and excited for the new season.
BT: With you living in Toronto, how much interest did you have in the CFL growing up and did you follow the Argonauts?
Cohon: I was born in Chicago but we moved to Toronto when I was two, so I grew up playing Canadian football at high school. I was recruited to play in university, although I decided against it, but I was always a big CFL fan.
My mom was originally from Buffalo so I followed the Bills a bit, but I rooted for the Argos, and they were my team growing up. I’ve always loved the game.
BT: Looking at the CFL moving forward, I think a lot of people would like to see the league have ten teams. With Ottawa coming back, I realise that’s the immediate priority, but how realistic is it going to be to find that tenth team and what’s the time scale for it happening?
Cohon: Well it’s interesting you ask that, because tomorrow I’m having two days off site with my executive team, just to talk about what our five-year plan is. And part of that will be a discussion about a tenth franchise, but you’re right, priority number one is bringing Ottawa back in. The stadium is going well, so I’m very excited in terms of what’s happening there.
Number two is, can we make a team happen in Atlantic Canada? Could you put it in Quebec City, or Halifax or Moncton? That’s what we have to look at and there’s a huge amount of work ahead of us in considering this. Of course a new stadium would have to be built, but what’s the right model? Should it be an individual owner or should it be a community owned team? That’s the decision we have to come to and then make sure we can rally people around that concept.
BT: Turning to the Argonauts, I’m sure you’re aware of the issue with playing at the Rogers Centre, where they will eventually go to a grass field. What is your involvement, if any, in respect of where the Argonauts will play down the line?
Cohon: As you know, there’s a renaissance going on right now with stadiums in the CFL, from Hamilton, to Ottawa, to Winnipeg this year. There’s no denying the stadiums are important both for our fans and to attract players.
Usually it’s the team that leads the way and then the league figures out how we will support it. For example, we can support them with a future Grey Cup. But can we also support them in terms of the specifics of the look and feel of the stadium? Is it broadcast ready? Is it ready to host a Grey Cup?
So those are the type of things we do behind the scenes and to see if we can help a team get support from the business community and maybe different sectors of the Government. So, yes, we play some roles behind the scenes, but we usually let the teams lead the charge.
BT: With the Grey Cup being played here last year, how much do you think that helped the future of CFL football in Toronto?
Cohon: I think it helped immensely. Obviously there’s a lot of enthusiasm for champions in this city. The fact of the matter is, like any city, Toronto wants winners and the way the team performed last year, the festival that the committee put on, I think it has helped people think differently about the CFL and the Argos. Hopefully that will cultivate itself with more people attending games this year.
BT: One thing I’ve always noticed, even from talking to you now, is you always have a smile on your face. You obviously have a lot of enthusiasm for this job,
Well, I’ve been involved in sport for a long period of time, having worked in Major League Baseball and the NBA, but since taking over as CFL Commissioner, and working for an institution that means so much to Canada, it’s been great fun.
BT: In terms of your job, how long do you expect to remain in this position? In fact, have you even thought that far ahead or are you just taking it as it comes?
Cohon: (Laughs) I’m probably taking it more as it comes. I renewed my contract last year for a further three years after originally having a five year deal. As long as I’m having fun, as long as I feel I can make a difference and as long as there’s an opportunity to impact how the league is doing, we’ll see where it goes.
Right now though, I’m having fun. I still have two years on my agreement, so that’s what I’ll focus on for the time being
BT: Just finally, I know you’re a very busy man, but what do you do when you get any spare time? Do you have any hobbies or do you just relax?
Cohon: Well before coming here, I was just at my daughter’s first music recital She’s seven years old and she sang ‘Never Smile at a Crocodile’ from Peter Pan, so I was very proud of her.
In terms of spare time, I have a trainer, so I work out a lot. We also have a cottage not too far North of here, by Lake Simcoe, I love being on a boat and I love being in the water, whether it’s swimming, water-skiing, on a kayak, or a paddle board. That’s my kind of relaxtion, unlike golf. Even though I go out to play a fair bit, I just don’t find it relaxing!
BT: I agree, that can be very stressful! Well, all I can say is good luck with the CFL moving forward and thank you for you time.
Cohon: Thank you as well.
Photo credit: www.cfl.ca
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