Jeffrey L. Orridge, 56, is the 13th commissioner of the Canadian Football League. From Queens, N.Y., he holds dual Canadian-American citizenship.
I was very, very fortunate to have parents who focused on – emphasized – education, first and foremost. They encouraged my passion for sport. As I was growing up, I played football, basketball, baseball, and I ran track. … Beyond that, when I went to law school, I knew that I did not want to be a corporate lawyer on Wall Street for the rest of my life.
Throughout my career, I was able to blend my passion for sport, my legal background in terms of the analytical aspects that I've learned in my career in problem-solving training; married that with marketing and brand building. It's been an exciting ride – I've been able to use the creative side of my brain in terms of marketing and the analytical side of my brain in terms of the legal acumen that you need for this kind of work.
I grew up less than a mile from Shea Stadium, so my mother used to take me to the Jets games as well as the Mets games. We used to walk to the stadium and take the bus back just to save money so we could actually buy the tickets. I grew up in a fairly modest background – both parents worked – my father worked for the New York City subway system and my mother was a private-duty nurse. I recognize now in hindsight the sacrifices they had to make financially in order to put me through private school, and then onward to college. But I never felt like I wanted for anything.
All of my friends were sports-oriented as well. We had known of the CFL growing up because there were people like Joe Theismann and Doug Flutie and … I remember watching Warren Moon on television and seeing him in Grey Cups because they broadcast that on NBC. I was very familiar with the CFL and very familiar with Canada, not just through the CFL, but because I actually have relatives who lived in Toronto. There was a connection there.
Warren Moon got a lot of attention in my community because it was notable that he was a black quarterback who was an outstanding player who had the opportunity to play quarterback in the CFL. That made an indelible impression on me and certainly it probably resonated even more with my father because he grew up in an era of segregation. … My father had a particular affinity, a kinship to Canada because he thought it was a land of opportunity.
About 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to become the chief operating officer of Right To Play, which is a global not-for-profit organization that focused on kids through sport and play … . The opportunity happened to be in Canada. I have to follow my spirit more than anything else and I was able to convince my wife to leave her job, which she loved. I told her I needed to follow my spirit and to give something back. Growing up, I remember the phrase, 'Service to others is the rent that you pay for your space on this earth.' Charity was a big part of my upbringing even though we didn't have a lot – my mother was particularly focused on giving back.
I'm a volunteer coach for youth basketball. While my 'competitive' playing days ended many years ago, I love teaching the values of sport as well as the skills. I also live vicariously by watching my two very athletic sons play and compete. They think I do it for them, but I'm really doing it more for me.
The role of any commissioner in a major sport requires myriad skill sets and it has become a much more complex role because of the complexities of the sports marketplace. Transactional work is key; understanding contracts, being able to put deals together, overseeing those things; having a good handle on labour relations because you have to deal with the players association. Marketing is key because you have to keep the fans that you have and attract new fans. Licensing is important because that's another revenue stream and you're always looking for additional revenue streams to augment your core business. And I think the whole idea of volunteerism, particularly in sport, and being focused on and having a passion for, and understanding other people's passion in sport also helps tremendously. You have to have an affinity for the industry that you are working in. All those things have married to best prepare me at this point in my career to handle this job.
Passion is key. Commitment is also very important. … I look for [employees] who are good teammates who are supportive of each other, who exercise good judgment in terms of knowing when to keep the ball themselves and when to pass it off.
The goal is for us to expand our reach and to continue to expand our reach, not only in Canada by attracting younger and more diverse audiences, but also south of the border. … You don't necessarily have to play somewhere – play on somebody else's soil – to advance the game.
The goal for me is perpetuating the future of the CFL. It is really focused on making sure that the next 104 Grey Cups have been as successful as the last 104.
As told to Darren McGee. This interview has been edited and condensed.