CFL commissioners set up for failure

It’s impossible to be the commissioner of the CFL.

Nobody can work for nine different bosses. Each of the CFL’s nine teams has a governor. And make no mistake — the governors are in charge of the league.

If it operated like the NFL, NHL, MLB or NBA and put one person in charge for a decade or so, the CFL might actually become a thriving business instead of an enterprise fractured by the individual concerns, indeed, the greed, of nine different franchises. Too many chefs, not enough cooks. Not enough money.

Every few years the CFL’s governors hire someone (who nobody expected) to serve as commissioner. They come from varied backgrounds: Television, business, law, accounting, marketing… and quickly find something else to do.

Who would really want such a short-term job?

Glen Johnson, a former on-field official who serves as the CFL’s senior vice-president of football, is being touted as Orridge’s likely replacement. Hamilton Tiger-Cats CEO Scott Mitchell, the son of former commissioner Doug Mitchell, could certainly fill the role. Others want former Saskatchewan CEO/president Jim Hopson, who turned the community-owned Roughriders from the poorest into the CFL’s wealthiest franchise, to un-retire and assume the role even though he’s in his mid-60s. Why not? CFL commissioners last an average of 3.6 years!

The new commissioner is initially viewed as the man setting the league’s direction, illustrating its vision. It quickly becomes obvious that the six private owners (or groups) and the three community-owned franchises control all the decisions.

Jeffrey Orridge wanted to diversify the league with off-the-field programs that attracted a younger audience through social media. He spoke about player safety and improving the game, but wouldn’t admit there’s a link between concussions and football while league-wide attendance was dropping. He lasted about two years as commissioner until the CFL announced this week they would soon be disposing of Orridge because their long-term visions differed.

Mark Cohon surprisingly lasted almost eight years. Cohon, who wanted to fortify the Ontario market and expand into the Maritimes, became very popular with fans and players until he stepped aside, worn out by the task of keeping the governors together and unable to add that 10th franchise.

Tom Wright, the full-time commissioner who preceded Cohon for four years, tried putting firmer spending controls in place as the governors bickered about being told what to do. Fired!

In the past 30 years the CFL has had 11 men serve as its commissioner; sometimes the league’s chair served as interim commissioner while the league sought another sacrificial lamb. During that same period the NFL, considered the world’s most successful sports league, has had three commissioners. The NFL gives its commissioner total authority and has thrived under Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and current commissioner (since 2006) Roger Goodell.

Granted, if three or four owners are chafing under Goodell’s rule, there are 28 or 29 teams who support the commissioner and tend to keep the malcontents under control. In the CFL, when three or four owners dislike the commissioner, it’s easy to attract another dissident to oust him and start anew.

NFL owners have long realized that such a diverse, strong-willed group needs to be ruled by an iron-fisted ruler who has the authority to decide what’s best for their game. CFL governors should pay attention and surrender their misguided power for the good of their game.

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