When it comes to CFL front office experience, few boast more than Phil Kershaw. The Toronto native has been there, done that, having served as president of Saskatchewan Roughriders, the chairman of the CFL, the league’s interim commissioner, president of the Ottawa Rough Riders, and a consultant for the Renegades.
He was sitting at the table during the league’s most turbulent times — from ownership changes to American expansion — oversaw sales of franchises, created some of the league’s most distinct logos and sold thousands of season tickets.
Recently I caught up with Kershaw to chat about his past and where he thinks the league is headed.
Growing up, were you a big CFL fan?
Oh yeah. I was born in Toronto and in those days — the 1960s and 1970s — when the Argos played in CNE stadium, they regularly drew 45,000 people to games. A large reason for that was there was nowhere near the level of interest in the NFL we see nowadays.
Most people in Canada back then were just CFL fans. There were limited NFL games on TV — maybe we could catch the odd Buffalo game — but what we saw all the time, both on TV and read in the papers, was about the Argos.
How did you first break into the league and later, become president of Saskatchewan in 1990? Did you have previous experience working for the CFL?
No, but at the start that didn’t really matter. I had been involved with football my entire life — I played high school and junior football in Toronto — and was always passionate about the sport. When I came to Regina, I owned my own marketing business and given that the Roughriders were community-owned, decided to get involved.
Initially I was put onto the committee in 1983 due to my marketing background and helped redesign the logo in 1985 as part of the club’s 75th anniversary.
From being on the Rider board from 1983 onwards, eventually through attrition I slowly worked my way up to the top and became president in 1990. It was interesting because that actually wasn’t a paid position, it was a volunteer job, so I still owned and operated my own marketing company at the time.
So, if I understand the timeline correctly, you were the league’s chairman at the same time you were Saskatchewan’s team president?
In 1991 the league’s chairman was Roy McMurtry but that year he accepted a position to become a provincial judge, which meant he had to step down. When he did, I automatically slid into his spot as chairman of the league. As an interesting aside, when Donald Crump was fired, technically I was the interim commissioner for a few weeks until Larry Smith was hired.
What does the role of being CFL’s chairman entail exactly?
I would put it this way, the commissioner is kind of the CEO of the league, and a full-time employee, hands-on and running the league on a day-to-day basis. The chairman is simply a board member. Each team has a representative on the board of governors and the chairman is the who runs and conducts the meetings.
1991 was a wild time in the CFL. It was the Year of the Rocket. Ottawa’s entire board of directors resigned and the league took the team over. The Calgary Stampeders were sold. As chairman, what issues took up most of your time?
What we were all concerned about in those days was the survival of the league. In the 1980s the league had gone from being very popular to being taken back by the arrival of the Blue Jays, the growth of the NFL, and the expansion of the NHL with new franchises in Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Quebec City.
What the league needed in 1991 was a real boost. It found that with the shot in the arm that came from the McNall group. Bruce McNall brought together a lot of star power when he put together the ownership team of John Candy, Wayne Gretzky and himself to purchase the Argos.
The reason that was so needed is because so many ownership situations were murky. David Braley owned Hamilton but was on the fence about keeping the team. The B.C. situation was a problem because Murray Pezim was a big stock promoter. He was what was known a boom-and-bust guy, meaning that depending on the day of the week, he was either really wealthy — or not.
Overall, there was just so much financial instability, and the major concern was the league being able to continue to operate and pay bills. That’s kind of where the league is normally at, but it isn’t quite as articulated as much because you don’t want to always tell people about your business behind closed doors.
Bruce McNall ran into legal troubles later in life and Paul Woods’ new book The Year of the Rocket mentions that when it came time to do due diligence on him before his group purchased the Argos, you personally kiboshed the idea. Is that true? And if so, why?
Yes. For his book Paul quoted me extensively. The thing was we could’ve done due diligence on him but in 1991 he would’ve come up gold because it was before all the revelations of problems and fraudulent activities. My thinking was, why waste time? He had a ton of assets and loans with major banks and had we done diligence on him he would’ve come up sterling. They would’ve all told us he was an excellent client.
What came out after the fact (in the mid-’90s) is that he was taking out assets and rededicating them to bank loans and they were the same assets. That launched an FBI investigation and caused him a whole world of trouble.
But the fact was in 1991, it would not have been to our benefit to investigate him because on paper he looked good, and we were in no position to say no to his money. Not with the star power of Candy, Gretzky and The Rocket.
When Toronto came to town that year, every single stadium was sold out. Candy did interviews with all the local TV stations too. The modern equivalent of that would be like Drake buying a stake in the Argos and doing interviews with Regina TV stations. There was huge buzz, especially after they signed Raghib Ismail, who was that year’s Heisman winner.
The fact of the matter was we were in such a down phase with Braley wanting to sell the Ticats and the shaky ownership in B.C. — not to mention other teams being in dire straits — that the positive coverage that came from McNall’s ownership was a very big deal.
Circling back to Ottawa, did you guys have any concerns selling the team to Bernie Glieberman for a dollar, or was it more a case of just being thrilled to find someone to take on the team’s million-dollar debt?
Traditionally the way most CFL teams are sold — and I’ve been involved in many transactions (although not recently) — is that the deal can be structured any way you like, but what happens is buyer ends up agreeing to take over current — not the past — payables and all of the liabilities going forwards.
To provide an example, I’ll go back to 1992. Let’s say I was going to buy the B.C. Lions. I wouldn’t pay off the former owner’s bills but given that the league would be the one anting up payments during the transition, what I would do is start at day one and commit to funding the team going forward.
In my specific case after my first year with Ottawa in 1994, the club went through bankruptcy so it could be sold to Horn Chen. That meant there was an amount of money paid into it, and that money paid some of the payables but it was really a rationalization of the payables because nobody is going to come in and pay ten million dollars for someone else’s debts and problems.
In your opinion, just how close were the Rough Riders to folding in 1991?
Well, I can tell you firsthand extremely close because I used to get calls from Jo-Anne Polak (Ottawa’s general manager) on a daily basis.
Once she called me up on a Tuesday and told me that she was having a meeting Wednesday afternoon with the city of Ottawa at a Westin hotel and she believed that if the meeting went sideways, the team could fold. Compounding things, the Rough Riders actually had a game that night so she wanted the commissioner to be present at the meeting to vouch to the city to open up Lansdowne so the game could proceed.
For whatever reason, Donald Crump refused to go to the meeting so I flew from Regina to Ottawa. At the meeting the owners of the Rough Riders said they were defaulting and they were now out of the ownership of the club. Since they basically washed their teams of the franchise, I had to convince the city — as a representative of the league — that the CFL would honour the lease so that the game could go take place.
We then had formal meetings in Toronto a few days later wherein the league formally took over the Ottawa franchise. It was such a mess because Hamilton was supposed to fly to Regina that weekend to play Saskatchewan, but Braley was making noise that he wouldn’t put the Ticats on the team to fly out West. So what was happening in Ottawa created a domino effect which nearly caused the entire league to crash and burn right then and there.
What was your opinion on American expansion: a necessary evil or misguided error?
The main thing is that there was enough money that came into the league from expansion that it gave us what we needed to keep teams going forward. In terms of whether or not it was a success, I think we went into the U.S. without a real understanding of the American football market and because of that we failed.
To be frank, it worked out well enough in the summer although the problem is the locations we picked. Las Vegas, Birmingham and Memphis are hotter than Hades in the summertime. Who wants to go sit outdoors in a stadium when it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit at six o’clock at night?
We also had issues because once Labour Day hit there was high school, college and NFL going on, which just tanked interest in CFL games. American fan interest was basically non-existent once those other leagues started up.
The only market that really did well was Baltimore and a lot of that had to do with the fact that the Colts had up and left the city, so there was a lot of bad feelings about that and as a result people — as a way of kind of getting back at the NFL — all went to Memorial Stadium to watch the Baltimore Stallions. Plus, they had a hell of a team. The guy I’d hired at one point to coach in Saskatchewan (Don Matthews) was with them, and he helped put together an excellent, excellent team.
It’s funny, I actually had meetings with the NFL in 1993 with a young guy named Roger Goodell. During our talks he told me something interesting. He said that the NFL had done significant research and determined that between high school, college and the NFL there was no more opportunity for football expansion in the United States as the market was saturated.
We quite clearly proved that rang true when we went into the States with U.S. expansion, as I mentioned above. Additionally, that’s borne out by the XFL — both times — USFL and the AFL failing. That’s why even though I wasn’t violently opposed to the XFL merger talks that surfaced this past off-season, I think the CFL needs to be extremely careful not to tie itself to something with a low likelihood of success. Not to mention you absolutely don’t want to compromise anything that makes the Canadian game special.
During your time as team president in Saskatchewan, three of the four years the team made the playoffs but each time lost to Edmonton to the West Semi-Finals. How frustrating was that?
Back in those days, Edmonton was the powerhouse of the CFL. Every year they not only had strong support from their fans, but they always seemed to have the best teams, full of talent.
Hugh Campbell was the general manger, obviously he really knew and understood how to put CFL teams together. His son is a pretty good coach, but Hugh won five straight Grey Cups as head coach, went to the USFL with LA, went to on Houston with Warren Moon, came back to the CFL as a general manger and had tons of success.
We did beat them just before I became president in 1989 in the Western Final — when we went on to win one of the greatest Grey Cups ever — but they were just a lot stronger than us in those days.
Just after Saskatchewan won the Grey Cup ’89, you suggested the Riders bid to host the 1993 event. What gave you that idea, and why did you believe the city could pull it off, despite the initial lukewarm response to your idea?
Having lived in Saskatchewan, we — the people living there and our franchise — always had a bit of an inferiority complex. At times I think too many of us thought of ourselves as ‘the little Saskatchewan Roughriders.’ We couldn’t afford to hire the top name coaches. We couldn’t sign the best players. We didn’t have money for this or that.
And yet when we won the Grey Cup in 1989, I started thinking big and suggested at the next board meeting that we should bid to host the Grey Cup. The major problem at the time was that there weren’t enough hotel rooms in Regina to host that many people. The other thing was that the stadium would need to expand.
When I raised the idea, it was initially dismissed, but after germinating for a few years, the ball got rolling. The team put in temporary extra seats for a couple of promotions we ran. That took care of that.
Then my successor as president, John Lipp, came up with this idea of billeting visiting fans. The basic concept was that people from out of town could come and stay in fans’ homes in Regina. The idea was that if you were a football fan, you could stay with another fan, have something to talk about, make friendships and have a uniquely Canadian experience on Grey Cup weekend.
They called it ‘Huddle Up Saskatchewan’ and the concept was well-received. Now if you’re asking me, if I personally wanted to go stay in a stranger’s home, using their bathroom, that’s a no! The other fear I had was that I could see some poor guy stumbling home at two in the morning locked out when it’s minus-30. They pulled it off, though!
As someone who was in Regina during an era when the franchise was so financially unstable, how surprising is it for you to see the team in a beautiful new stadium and as one of the bedrocks of the league?
I think what happened was a perfect storm. We started the idea of ‘Rider Pride’ and did the new logo (75th anniversary) but it was really an aspirational thing. It was like. ‘This is what we aspire to be.’ We knew we had great fans, but we had economic tough times in Saskatchewan all throughout the province. No joke, we had fans pay for their season tickets by selling wheat. Literally, taking the grain truck out and selling bushels so that they had money to make their payments for tickets.
But then between potash, oil and gas and diversification of their economy, Saskatchewan transitioned from a have-not province to a have. The other big thing the Roughriders had going for them then — and now — is that it truly helps that they are they only province with a CFL team and no NHL team.
In a sense they have the waterfront to themselves. All the corporate money and advertising dollars for pro sports is theirs for the taking. They don’t need to share with anyone in the sense that they have no competition. I know there’s now NLL teams in Saskatoon and Canadian basketball, but in terms of major sports that grab attention, the Roughriders have the market basically to themselves.
Furthermore, Saskatchewan has profited incredibly with their merchandizing because their gear represents so much more than just a sports team. The green jerseys and hats and that logo are statements that demonstrate you’re from Saskatchewan. It’s a part of the identity of those who live on the Prairies.
Bruce Firestone hired you as president of the Ottawa Rough Riders in December 1994. Given all the off-field issues surrounding the franchise, what was your mindset like heading into that situation?
My mindset was fine, I was under no illusions as to what I was walking into, but I really believed I going to be able to fix the franchise, if given enough time.
The biggest thing I dealt with was what I’d refer to as culture shock. The difference was that Bruce came from the NHL with the Senators, so he had a very corporate mindset, and I was coming in from Saskatchewan, was which was the diametric opposite — grassroots, blue collar CFL.
The Senators were about club seating, private boxes, corporate seats and corporate sponsorships. In Saskatchewan I was used to small town Saskatchewan couples using their hard-earned dollars to buy the tickets.
When I got to the Rough Riders, we didn’t have private boxes and we didn’t have club seating. We didn’t have a lot at all. Although there was some corporate support, it wasn’t the kind of ilk Bruce was used seeing in the NHL, so he insisted we jack up the prices of game day tickets to near NHL levels.
What Bruce didn’t understand — and if you know Bruce, he’s not someone who can easily be told something, especially if he doesn’t agree — is that the average season ticket holder we had in those days was someone from the Ottawa Valley, and they were never going to be OK with suddenly paying two or three times the price for the same seats in the same stadium to watch the same team, overnight. There was a massive fan rebellion. People were pissed.
In 1994 the Rough Riders made a radical break from tradition, dramatically altering their logo and primary colours. Talk to me a bit about that process.
The story on that is that Bruce had this idea that because the Rough Riders weren’t successful, anything they did in the past needed to be changed, since it clearly wasn’t working.
I learned early on in my time with Bruce that there’s not a lot of point in arguing with him, but I told him that if we were going to do it, we had to look as much like a football team as possible. What Bruce didn’t understand, although I did try to warn him, is that you can’t change traditional colours.
Where he got off track is that when anyone across the country thinks of Ottawa, when it comes to sports teams, you think of red and black. Whether it was the Rough Riders, Senators, Renegades or 67s, right across the board, Ottawa teams used black and red.
But Bruce liked the Florida Panthers and he loved their colours. To be honest, so did I. I think their original logo and colour scheme was one of the best in the NHL.
So, for that reason, I decided to model our change after the San Francisco 49ers and Florida State. I borrowed a page from their book and went with gold helmets, red jerseys, and gold pants. I believed it was a strong design and looked like a sharp NFL uniform. The problem with it was that it didn’t jive with what Ottawans perceived as the colours of the Rough Riders.
At the end of the day it was another misstep — like the ticket price increase — and fans got upset and rejected the change, which is why the uniforms were back to traditional colours in 1996.
It’s too bad though, because those were attractive uniforms, they just didn’t work and fit in that marketplace. If you were starting the Atlantic Schooners from scratch tomorrow, you could take those colours and that uniform and make them iconic.
Why were you out as president (in 1995) after just one year?
When Horn Chen came in, he was involved with a pair of guys named Donald Howell and Garth Roberts and they wanted to start a professional roller hockey league and wanted me to shift over and run that. I decided to say yes.
After leaving the CFL in 1995, you were out of the league until being hired as a consultant by Bernie Gleiberman for the Renegades in 2005.
Is it true you clashed with him over the roles of Lonie (his son), John Jenkins and Forrest Gregg? In particular I read you were quite opposed to the Mardi Gras promotion Lonie was running at the time.
I’d known the Gleibermans since their days originally owning the Rough Riders and to this day we still talk and I consider them good friends. So when Bernie came to me and asked if I’d be willing to come in and help drive some revenues, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
As for the Mardi Gras promotion, there was a lot done to promote it, which prompted a strong reaction — a lot of columns were written on it, a lot of people around town were talking about it — but it definitely led to some less-than-ideal interactions between drunk males with beads and women of all ages at the game.
There goes your family atmosphere. So the only point I made was that given how much football in Ottawa had struggled with both the Rough Riders and Renegades, both on and off the field, I just thought — and Bernie agreed — that this probably wasn’t the kind of PR we were looking for or needed.
When it came to Jenkins and Greg, I had infinite respect for both of them and had zero issues with their credentials. John had a successful career coaching all up and down the NCAA and CFL. Forrest was once described by Vince Lombardi as the best football player he had ever seen, talk about powerful testimony, eh? Forrest also coached the Argos in the ’70s, the Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance in the ’80s and the Shreveport Pirates in the ’90s.
I just didn’t know that they were the right fit for the team at that time and given how the entire business was struggling when they came in, I think things got a bit too adversarial and simply didn’t work out.
What was the main reason the Renegades folded in 2006?
At the sum of it, Bernie wanted the league to come in and provide financial assistance to go forward. When they refused, we suspended operations for the 2006 season and then the franchise folded.
The thing is when you have turmoil and you’re not having success, that causes constant change. When you have that you never seem to be able to get over the hump. I really believe if we could have settled down and been able to take the time that we needed to let the team mature, things would’ve turned around on the field and then off of it.
But in Ottawa we were always in a panic. There were never enough people in the stands, so the ownership groups were constantly impatient. Whenever a team is undercapitalized and losing money owners aren’t happy, which leads to change, inconsistency, and instability.
None of those things are conducive to winning. Look at places like Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, and Hamilton. All have stable ownership and typically that translates to competitiveness on the field.
When I joined the Renegades in 2005 we were up against it not only because of our self-inflicted wounds — Mardi Gras and losing — but because of how successful the Senators were at the time. They had a quality team with guys like Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, and so on. They went to the playoffs every year, often making deep runs.
What that meant for the Renegades was that Ottawa businesses were emptying their budgets into the Senators because that’s where the juice was. Think about it, if you had money to advertise with a sports team, do you want it to be with the franchise that’s winning games and going to the playoffs with 41 home contests, or one with only nine home dates that couldn’t manage a winning streak?
Naturally people want the association of a winner and in those days the Senators were winners, and the Rough Riders/Renegades were losers.
What’s the best marketing idea you never got to use?
Hmm, you’ve thrown me a bit of a curve ball. I pretty much got to use all of them — some worked out wonderfully, others less so. What I would say is that looking back, my proudest memories from my time in Saskatchewan is that we did a lot of things with the Roughriders in terms of taking the aspirational idea of ‘Rider Pride’ and ‘Green is the Colour’ to making it real.
We had the idea of what it was but initially it was just a concept we hoped to achieve. As the economy got better, it actually manifested itself and became a reality. Because let me tell you, at times we were lucky if we drew 15,000 to a game. We were really struggling to draw people out to the stadium but as the economy took off, people had more money to spend and things turned around quickly.
In Ottawa, we did a big season ticket campaign in 1995 to save the team and sold around 15,000 season tickets — a lot of which were discounted — and as you might imagine I took a lot of flak for that. But the fact was the league gave me a number and the only way I could get it wasn’t selling season tickets in ones or twos, but in bulk. And so yes, I did bulk discounts, but I can tell you there were 15,000 season tickets sold and they weren’t that cheap, just discounted.
I would have liked to have a real chance to stay and try to completely turn around the Ottawa franchise in those days. It eventually happened for the Redblacks — and fairly quickly, too — with them selling out all their games and winning a Grey Cup. I never had the chance that stability in ownership provides, but I would have really liked a shot to dig in and fix things in the nation’s capital.
How do you keep busy nowadays?
I’m a consultant and involved as a shareholder in an alternative energy company from Calgary. We have a lot of technologies focused on shifting from the old economy to the new economy. Things like renewable energy and low carbon fuels, patented processes and that kind of thing. So that’s my day job. I’ve also written a few books and produced some Christian music.
If you were CFL commissioner today, what’s the first thing you would do?
This is going to be a long answer, because I think there’s several issues that need addressing so let me start this response with a question.
Why does the CFL survive when all these other spring leagues and so on fail?
I think it’s because the CFL has what is called in the marketing world ‘a unique selling proposition’ and that is we have the franchise for football in Canada. You can watch all the NFL and NCAA until the cows come home but in Canada in terms of live football the only real major live football played in our country — aside from U Sports — is the Canadian Football League and it’s proved to be very venerable.
We got through the horror stories of instability in recent times — owners going bankrupt and folding teams, upgrading and building new modern stadiums, surviving the pandemic — and despite everything when the Grey Cup rolls around every November the game is sold out and the TV numbers are good especially when you factor in the streaming numbers and French viewers.
I often see stuff online where people say Raptors are way more popular than CFL but that’s just not true. Sure, everyone loved the Raptors when they won an NBA title with Kawhi Leonard in 2019, but week in week out, CFL games draw much better numbers than the Raptors. It’s almost double when teams like Saskatchewan or Winnipeg are playing.
We need to take that foundation and protect it. I recently saw some talk about switching to four downs, which is a terrible idea. People watch the NFL because it’s a multi-dollar sports league with the very best football players in the world. We don’t have that in Canada and switching the CFL to four downs doesn’t suddenly change that. All it would achieve is us losing our distinctiveness as a league. We don’t need that, our game is fine, it just needs to be marketed better.
Another thing that plays into that is maintaining the ratio and ensuring a good number of Canadian starters. We need Canadian players. It matters that Dan Clark is from Regina. It matters that Nic Demski is not only from Winnipeg but went to and played for the University of Manitoba. It gives an affiliation.
If we use college football as an example, if you’re a university and you don’t recruit players from your state and you just go off to Florida, Louisiana and all the Texas meccas to get your players, ignoring the local high school heros, fans will have big problems with that. That’s why I think the CFL needs to get more involved with U Sports programs. Generate buzz about the upcoming generation of players. Make the draft an event.
One of the reasons the league is struggling to put on offensive displays is the ratio. Many coaches now put ten or eleven Americans on defence and fill their offensive line with Canadians. That results in a 24-year-old kid who played at Carleton or Ottawa U lining up to try and block a 30-year-old American who spent two seasons in the NFL.
He’s probably not going to do too well in that matchup. That’s why I’m in favour of the CFL mandating eight nationals, but with teams having to use four on each side of the ball. I think that would level the playing field a bit and produce more offensive fireworks.
Something else that is vital — and I say this is an older guy — we are nowhere near as visible on social media — TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — as we should be. I’m not trying to suggest there’s no presence there, there is, but I don’t feel like we’re doing enough on those platforms to get young people excited about the CFL.
When you look at TV numbers it’s good because a lot of old guys like me watch the league but at some point, you’re going to start losing those people so you better hope the next generation is interested and tuning in.
The other thing that’s happened a little bit is that the level of quarterback play in our league has fallen off, and I think a large part of that is due to the fact that in the past, NFL teams overlooked more smaller, more athletic quarterbacks, in particular often not giving black quarterbacks a fair shot.
For example, when I was first following and later working in the league, guys like Warren Moon, Condredge Holloway, Damon Allen, and Tracy Ham were all-stars and making incredible plays every week in the CFL because the NFL had overlooked them. Nowadays you have guys like Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson dazzling in the NFL. 30 years ago, those guys probably aren’t given a fair shake and wind up in the CFL.
A lot of the current quarterbacks in the CFL are older, less athletic, less mobile guys. I like Matt Nichols, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Bo Levi Mitchell — he’s such a smart, proven winner — but they’re not the most exciting players and they lack that ‘wow’ factor. Meanwhile, teenagers turn on the TV and see Lamar Jackson running all over the place and making incredible throws.
Because of the skill sets of those athletic quarterbacks, NFL offences are more wide open and look like video games, meanwhile many CFL games feature old conservative football from bygone eras. The closest thing we have in Canada right now to those names I mentioned are Vernon Adams Jr. and Cody Fajardo and their ability to use their legs to extend players and make big throws.
That’s what people want to see: exciting quarterback play can hide a lot of warts, not just for individual teams but the entire league.
Something else I would do is move the season up – and I think that’s something that will happen soon. In my mind, the season should the first week of June and be over by Remembrance Day. I believe the days of Canadians willing to sit outside for three hours in the freezing temperatures to watch a game are behind us.
I know the counter-argument to moving the season up is that you might run into the Stanley Cup Finals, but honestly at that point it’s only two playing and I hate to say it but it’s rare a Canadian team even makes it that far.
So there’s my long-winded answer on what I’d focus on if I became commissioner. Everyone thinks there’s an easy fix but I’ve literally been in the board meetings and it’s much more difficult to get teams to agree than fans would think.
But above all, the CFL needs to keep its uniqueness. I believe there’s a good foundation in place, it’s really just about strengthening what already works.
Thanks for your time Phil!