Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge delivered the first state of the league address of his tenure on Friday, accompanied by a slick promotional campaign featuring a new logo and slogan. The timing was hardly coincidence as it provided a bit of flashy distraction before the tough questions began. The CFL: we can brand our way out of trouble.
The league has some very real problems, including a 15 per cent drop in TV ratings this season, static attendance, a Grey Cup that isn’t sold out, the absence of a drug testing policy and an increasing lack of faith in its officiating. Orridge, who been on the job just seven months, acknowledged those issues on Friday – as much as he could be expected to, anyway – but the league’s focus seems to be on a series of clickable bells and whistles targeting a younger, digital-savvy fan base.
The new logo met with predictably mixed reviews – it features the league’s initials in large black letters over a grey football shape with a partial red maple leaf at the bottom – and the slogan “What We’re Made Of” was featured in a splashy video with shots of players, fans and stadiums from all nine CFL cities. The new slogan had been teased for weeks on social media using the hashtag #WWMO. In a league where history and tradition have long been selling points, the CFL is chasing millennials one social media user at a time.
As for the CFL’s other problems… well, those are a bit more difficult to gloss over. Orridge attributed the drop in television ratings to a “perfect storm” of PanAm Games, Women’s World Cup and the Blue Jays’ post-season run. He defended officiating, saying they get a bad rap from media and fans.
The drug testing issue – the league, incredibly, has gone an entire season without a program in place – is being slowly shoved into the laps of the CFL Player’s Association, despite the fact that it was the league’s petulant response to legitimate criticism from the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport that created the problem in the first place.
Platitudes and subtle obfuscation – the hallmarks of any effective marketing campaign – were front in centre in Orridge’s response to questions regarding Hamilton’s long-promised Grey Cup. In a 2010 letter to council during the divisive debate over the new stadium’s location, the league promised the opportunity to host the event “multiple times” but has yet to deliver on that dangled fiscal carrot.
Orridge used terms like “soon” and “in the near future” when describing a Hamilton Grey Cup, while praising the community and its new stadium, to which the city contributed more than a third of the $145 million construction cost. But he wasn’t willing to describe how and when the selection process would take place.
“It’s a decision that’s discussed and often times debated but ultimately made by the Board of Governors under a lot of different criteria,” Orridge said. “It can be a complicated process but I can assure you that there is equity and reasonableness applied to every decision that we make when it comes to the Grey Cup.
“I can’t put a timeline on it right now.”
It’s a polished answer but one with a troubling lack of certainty. And that’s the early direction of the CFL under Orridge, a league that emphasizes how the message is delivered and marketed. The answers to tough and pressing questions will come later: we’ll simply have to trust that he can live up to the well-produced hype.
And deliver on his promises.