Former CFL commissioner Mark Cohon knows the pressures of leading a league well.
Cohon served as commish from 2007 through the 2014 season. The 54-year-old was keeping tabs on the possibility of a six-game season this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When this came out, and I didn’t want to be very public about it, I was very pessimistic that a season could happen, primarily, because of the revenue structure, it’s a ticket-driven league. I was very much in the mindset that the league should’ve potentially used this as an opportunity to retrench,” Cohon said on The Rod Pedersen Show.
“Let’s scale down our operations, conserve cash, still have players in the community, but the likelihood of having a season was not going to be in place. I would’ve said let’s not try and do four games, or five games, or six games, let’s do what is more practical for the business: stop, replenish, rethink, scale back, try and reserve cash, and rethink about the future.”
Even though Winnipeg had tentatively been chosen as the league’s hub city, the board of governors voted to cancel pro three-down football in 2020. That came after the Canadian government denied the CFL a specific financial package which started off with current commissioner Randy Ambrosie asking for up to $150 million in May.
“Randy said he wishes he’d done a few things differently, especially the ask of the government of $150 million. That became the story and that got away from him. If he looks back, and what he said was, he wishes he spent a little bit more time sitting down with the players,” Cohon said.
“I can understand the stress that he was under, but hopefully that experience will allow the teams and entire league to sit back and say: what does the future of the CFL look like? They should really undress the onion, peel back and really look at what’s good, what’s bad and what can the future hold and how do we build a more sustainable model.”
The CFL went through a period of major growth under Cohon’s watch, including big bumps in ratings on TSN leading to a tripling of television revenue. He played a role in helping bring a number of new stadiums to the league and the successful return of a franchise to Ottawa. The Upper Canada College and Northwestern University graduate has a unique understanding of the financials for each team and league overall.
“Now is the time to rebuild. They can be very creative. A whole future area is going to be sports betting. If there is new models they should start to think about, one is sports betting. Can the league start taking advantage? You have to see what opportunities lie ahead,” Cohon said.
“In terms of planning for next year, they have to plan for if the season comes back, or whether they do a COVID season where there’s no fans in place. And how do they do that? How do they still work with the players so the players get some salaries during these tough times.”
In the past, Cohon was the head of international marketing for the NBA and head of corporate development for Major League Baseball International. He has touched base with commissioners Adam Silver [NBA] and Don Garber [MLS] who are both guiding return to play strategies for their respective leagues.
“It’s been tough. Everyone is learning on the fly, no one wrote a book for this black swan moment as it relates to a pandemic,” Cohon said.
Former Saskatchewan Roughriders president Jim Hopson described Cohon’s leadership style as an iron fist with a velvet glove. Every commissioner has unique challenges in the role, the main objective in the CFL was for Cohon to ensure the nine owners and board of governors were all onside with his decisions.
“I really learned from [former NBA commissioner] David Stern and a few other people that you had to have your convictions, you had to be tough, but you had to know how to treat people with respect and with class,” Cohon said.
“A lot of the times the owners wanted a commissioner that could lead, and that’s what I tried to do. Not everyone agrees with you all the time, but you have to push through and get the majority on your side.”
That’s what Ambrosie will have to do in order to repair his standing while striving to match the high standard left by Cohon.