Attendance is up, TV ratings are down, the CFL's southern Ontario clubs continue to struggle and commissioner Mark Cohon remains in talks with the league's board of governors about a new contract.
Those were the highlights of Cohon's annual state of the league address Friday, his fifth since succeeding Tom Wright as commissioner in 2007.
Cohon's future was a hot-button topic with his current deal slated to expire in April 2012. Not only does Cohon want to remain in his current post but league governors share that sentiment and the two sides continue to talk.
At first glance, re-signing Cohon would seem a slam-dunk for the CFL. The league has enjoyed steady growth under Cohon by both renewing existing sponsorships while adding a number of new ones.
There's a sense of calm throughout the league with no major fires burning. The CFL has labour peace and a new drug-testing policy in place, improved stadiums in B.C., Edmonton and Montreal, a new one being built in Winnipeg and another planned in Hamilton.
The 45-year-old Cohon has also ensured the league's focus remains squarely on the game and not back-room politics. After years of the CFL hemorrhaging money, it's at a point where six of the eight teams are either breaking even or making money — the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats being the exception.
The fan-friendly Cohon has also shown a willingness to leave no stone unturned in an attempt to boost revenues, notably the league find a sponsor for its marquee event, the Grey Cup.
But there's talk now of some unrest on the board with some members feeling Cohon hasn't done enough to boost revenues and spent too much operating the league's head office in Toronto.
So instead of announcing a new agreement during a time of relative prosperity for the league, Cohon was forced to take the high road regarding his long-term future.
“I don't want to do anything that changes the discussions I'm having with the board,” Cohon said. “I will tell you this: The board has come to me and said it wants me to renew and I've said to the board I want to renew.
“The conversations are very positive and going in the right direction. Hopefully we can have something soon.”
Retaining Cohon would be key for the CFL considering its current TV deal with TSN expires in 2013. Cohon is generally regarded as being best suited to spearhead the league's negotiations and secure a lucrative deal that allows him to boost transfer payments to member franchises.
The CFL isn't exactly in the best position possible to negotiate right now. Its ratings this year dropped from an average of 876,000 viewers per game to 701,000.
Cohon cited both Toronto and the Saskatchewan Roughriders missing the CFL playoffs and the B.C. Lions' slow start as reasons for the dip.
“Toronto and Saskatchewan struggled this year and those are two very important markets for us,” Cohon said. “And in Vancouver, one of the biggest television markets in the country, the Lions got off to a 1-6 start so we think that had an impact on our ratings.”
So too, Cohon said, did the nuances of the new Portable People Meters which assemble the ratings data.
“In Manitoba and Saskatchewan there are only 60 households part of that sample size so as people come in and out of that sample, which is clearly small . . . it can have a material impact on our ratings,” he said. “This is a new system and we have to see how it plays out over time.
“We think next year will give us a better indication of where we're at in our overall ratings.”
The good news is more fans attended CFL games in 2011. Average attendance this year was 27,799 spectators, a 2.4 per cent increase.
That's good news for CFL teams as ticket sales account for upwards of 65 per cent of their overall revenue.
But the league's two southern Ontario franchise continue to struggle.
Hamilton posted a losing record (8-10) and again lost money but at least made the CFL playoffs for a third straight season, reaching the East Division final. And in 2014, the Ticats will move into a new stadium.
The outlook isn't quite so rosy in Toronto, where the Argos (6-12) finished last in the East Division and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years.
What's more, Toronto's average attendance at cavernous Rogers Centre — which has a seating capacity of 54,000 for football — was just over 20,000 per game. The Argos' top draw this season was 21,189 for their home opener — a 33-24 loss to Winnipeg on July 23 — and five times they attracted less than 20,000 spectators.
Hardly an encouraging sign for David Braley, who took over as Argos owner in Feb. 2010. But the prognosis wasn't good, either, in 1997 when Braley purchased the B.C. Lions, who face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup on Sunday.
Cohon said the CFL has earmarked $1 million for the Argos and Ticats to split evenly to help their marketing initiatives.
“This is really a first step,” Cohon said. “We're focused on doing what it takes to turn this challenge around, which is the biggest opportunity our league has moving forward.”
One problem in Toronto is a general unhappiness with Rogers Centre, which many suggest lacks atmosphere and a cozy feel. Braley has committed to the facility in the short-term yet unlike other CFL cities there are no current plans for a new stadium in the GTA.
Braley, 70, has admitted he's received much interest for the Lions but has no immediate plans to sell. In fact, he sees himself owning one or both of his franchises until age 75 but Cohon said Braley's top priority is strengthening Toronto.
“We think he's the right man to get it done and we've put no timelines on him,” Cohon said. “He has renewed energy, he has time to commit and we're going to meet monthly to focus on Toronto and how the league can help him.”
The Argos can look ahead to a big payday next year when they host the Grey Cup, which will mark the historic 100th anniversary of game.
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