Why CFL commissioner Jeffery Orridge got the boot

When CFL commissioner Jeffery Orridge was hired in April of 2015, one of the interesting tidbits about him was his penchant for quoting Jay Z lyrics in his public appearances. Unfortunately for him – and the league – his shortened tenure will be remembered as more “99 Problems” than “Holy Grail” (those are both Jay Z songs.)

Orridge and the CFL agreed to “part ways” on Wednesday with the commissioner leaving his position on June 30. Orridge was two years into a three-year contract and the last commissioner, Mark Cohon, stayed for eight, so this is both parties acknowledging what pretty much everybody around the league had come to understand: that Orridge was a bad fit for the CFL. At least this way, everyone gets to save at least a little face.

With a background in TV – Orridge was executive director at CBC Sports – as well as time with Reebok and USA Basketball, Orridge’s hiring made some sense at the time. An American by birth, Orridge didn’t seem to have much by the way of football or CFL knowledge but that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. He was personable enough and talked a good game about growing the CFL with a younger audience using social media and digital platforms. The rest, it was assumed, he’d learn on the fly.

Except he didn’t. Orridge never seemed to grasp the unique nature of the CFL with its regional nuances and inherently grassroots appeal. The league lives in an odd space between big boy professional league and quaint provincial enterprise, its players doing both flashy TSN photo shoots and interacting with fans on a personal level. That inherent dichotomy is what both holds the league back and makes it great.

Orridge paid lip service to those concepts but never really absorbed them on a cellular level the way he needed to and the way his predecessor did. Cohon may have worn $300 jeans and a watch worth more than Argonaut season tickets but he understood the value of a guy in a watermelon helmet. Fans liked Cohon but never warmed to Orridge.

Of course, popularity isn’t necessarily a key competency for a sports commissioner (see Bettman, Gary and Goodell, Roger.) But without the support of the masses, keeping the bosses happy becomes paramount – Bettman and Goodell have flourished by making owners a boatload of money. And things have not gone particularly well for the CFL of late.

Attendance has dropped in each of the two seasons under Orridge and television ratings are down almost 20 per cent from where they were in 2013. The situation in Toronto – one of Orridge’s stated priorities – remains as bleak as ever and the city’s 2016 Grey Cup was marred by a series of increasingly embarrassing ticket giveaways. Not all these things can be blamed on Orridge, of course, but confidence in his ability to fix them had clearly waned.

Then there were the blunders of his doing. Orridge’s first state-of-the-league address was an unmitigated disaster – “unbelievably uneducated in many areas and as mostly evasive on others,” said one scribe – while his second featured a tone-deaf denial of a link between playing in the CFL and developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which led to widespread criticism.

The league went an entire season without drug testing after Orridge got into a petty and unnecessary squabble with the Canadian Centre of Ethics in Sport (and ultimately came crawling back.) Concerns around officiating, the rollout of the new logo, the handling of various Saskatchewan-related controversies… Orridge never seemed comfortable in the role or particularly deft at dealing with its challenges.

There were positives, of course. The CFL has been proactive in its approach to social and digital media and has worked hard to recruit younger fans – something the league has long struggled with. Its launch of CFL Week, which grouped several off-season events into a fan-and-media-friendly package, was a clear winner. That wasn’t nearly enough.

With Orridge moving on, there will be plenty of speculation on a possible replacement. It will be interesting to see if the board of governors, having been burned by a football neophyte with law degree, opts for a more well-known figure or one with a background in the game. Among the names already being floated: current vice-president of football Glen Johnson and former Argonaut great Michael “Pinball” Clemons. There will be others, to be sure.

With Orridge on his way out, the CFL gets a chance to reset its direction once again. Rather a New Yorker with a penchant for Jay-Z, the league may want to consider someone with an affinity for Drake (or the Hip or the Sheepdogs or the Arkells) – an innovator in his own right but with a unique understanding of what it means to be Canadian.

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