Orridge gets off to fast start as new CFL commissioner

Jeffrey Orridge

Jeffrey Orridge hasn’t had long to settle into his job as the CFL’s 13th commissioner.

Since taking office April 29, he has overseen the extension of the league’s TV deal with TSN through 2021, naming of Shaw Communications as the presenting sponsor of this year’s Grey Cup, sale of the Toronto Argonauts and severing of the CFL’s partnership with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports to administrate its drug policy.

With the CFL season opening this week, Orridge’s focus now turns to football and his plans to take in the home opener of all nine league teams.

“It has exceeded my expectations,” Orridge said. “There were many things set in place before I came in and all I had to do was give a bit of direction and blessing and contribute where I could.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The 54-year-old New York native left his position as executive director of sports and general manager of Olympics at CBC to become the CFL’s first black commissioner. The only real question Orridge faced on the job was Toronto’s future, which was secured last month when the Argonauts were sold Bell and Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment.

Toronto plays at Rogers Centre this season before moving into a refurbished BMO Field in 2016.

“In years past there’ve been periods in our history where we’ve been lurching from crisis to crisis,” Orridge said. “Now, there’s an opportunity to grow and build and particularly shore up our existing franchises.

“Toronto is particularly important to the league because Toronto, the GTA, is the hub of commercial flow, media activity and has the greatest number of potential audience in southern Ontario.”

Earlier this month, Orridge severed ties with the CCES after Christiane Ayotte, the head of the only lab in Canada sanctioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, publicly criticized the CFL’s drug policy. Any player testing positive for the first time isn’t named publicly or suspended and only subjected to mandatory testing for two years.

“Candidly, I think the criticism of the policy by those who have criticized it has hurt their credibility,” Orridge said. “I think (CFL’s drug policy) is good the way it is but I also think there’s always room for improvement.

“The great thing is even those who’ve received a positive test coming into the league, there’s been no second offences in the 4-5 years we’ve been instituting our policies and protocols. I think that speaks volumes that things are working.”

A top priority for Orridge is attracting younger fans to the CFL. Last month, the league unveiled a partnership with Whistle Sports, a multi-channel digital network with millions of subscribers on various platforms, including YouTube and Facebook.

Orridge joined the CFL with an extensive sports background. At CBC, he oversaw rights acquisitions, including the Olympics and the upcoming Pan Am Games.

He also structured the multi-year sub-licensing agreement with Rogers for Hockey Night in Canada. Prior to CBC, Orridge was chief operating officer at the Right To Play charity and also worked at Mattel Inc., Reebok and USA Basketball.

“I think there’s a lot I’ve learned in the course of my last 20-something years of sports-related experience that I can readily apply here,” he said. “Obviously I want to expand our reach and bring this game to as many people as possible.

“We’re obviously looking to engage a younger demographic and attracting new fans but keeping the ones we already have, those hardcore, diehard CFL fans who’ve grown up with it for generations . . . meeting their expectations and exceeding their expectations while also attracting a younger demographic and getting the casual fans involved as well.”

The CFL adopted rule changes this off-season to boost offence and scoring.

Converts went back 20 yards to the 32 while two-point attempts moved up two yards to the three-yard line. Also, defensive backs can’t contact receivers more than five yards downfield and on punts the five interior linemen on the kicking team can’t leave the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked.

“I’m looking forward to a great slate of games, great competition, great athleticism and really amplifying the fan experience,” Orridge said. “I think we’re poised to do that with the rule changes coming onboard now to open up the game and make it more unpredictable and exciting than it already is.”

The CFL season opens Thursday night with the Ottawa Redblacks visiting the Montreal Alouettes. Calgary begins its title defence Friday, hosting Hamilton on at McMahon Stadium in a Grey Cup rematch. The Stampeders edged the Tiger-Cats 20-16 in the championship game in November.

Since 1996-97, Toronto and Montreal are the only teams to win consecutive Grey Cups.

Ottawa won just two games in 2014, its inaugural campaign. GM Marcel Desjardins retooled the CFL’s worst offence this off-season, acquiring receiver Maurice Price from Calgary then signing receivers Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers as free agents.

Desjardins made a huge splash last month signing
receiver/kick-returner Chris Williams, the CFL’s top rookie rookie
in 2011 and special-teams performer in ’12 with Hamilton. Williams
returns to Canada after spending time in the NFL with New Orleans
and Chicago.

Desjardins said Ottawa is better now with a full season under its belt.

“For a number of reasons, the first being the acquisitions we made this off-season,” Desjardins said. “Also, I’d say 70 per cent of our defence were first-year players last year and now they have that year under their belt, they understand the league, they’re going to be that much better.

“Rick (head coach Rick Campbell) having another year as a head coach is good and I think having (new offensive co-ordinator) Jason Maas in a new offence and (offensive line coach) Bryan Chiu with him is beneficial. And just the big, big picture of all of us having been together for a year . . . that makes a difference also.”