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CFL commissioner Mark Cohon speaks at the annual state of the league media conference in Vancouver, B.C. (BEN NELMS/Reuters)
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon speaks at the annual state of the league media conference in Vancouver, B.C. (BEN NELMS/Reuters)

Ebner at the Grey Cup

Amid 'renaissance' Cohon still must tackle Toronto issue Add to ...

George Cohon, a Chicagoan, made his money selling American hamburgers to Canadians. The son of the long-time McDonald’s Canada chief, Mark Cohon, has a tougher gig: Selling Canadian football to Torontonians.

On Friday morning, on a sunny, crisp day in Vancouver Mark Cohon delivered his annual State of the League address to media assembled for Sunday’s Grey Cup. The ship of state is strong, Cohon declared, even as its heart, its key market, Toronto, sputters.

For the CFL, it is time of “renaissance”- a word Cohon used repeatedly, citing, among other things, the half-billion-plus of B.C. taxpayer funds that renovated the awful BC Place into something reasonable. The CFL, more so than other pro sports leagues, is heavily dependent on the take at the gate, as upwards of two-thirds of teams’ revenues come from ticket sales. Thus, the “fan experience” at the stadia is crucial. A prettified BC Place helps. A creaking McMahon Stadium in Calgary does not. The CFL, Cohon says, needs to win new fans, young fans, and win back “lost fans.” (Honey, I thought you said BC Place was right over here. I don’t see any grotesquely sized men in tights, helmets and padding.)

In Toronto, questions are plenty, and answers few. Argos attendance - the team’s 6-12 record did not help - averaged 20,018 in 2011, good for a hockey game, not so much in the caverns of Rogers Centre. And the figure is 40 per cent less than the league’s average attendance of 28,000 or so.

The stewards of the CFL are “seized” by this challenge and its board of governors has agreed to pool $1-million of collective dough to pour into southern Ontario, $500,000 to the Argos and $500,000 to the Ticats. The cash will be used to drum up interest with methods such as investments in amateur football, and marketing. Hamilton is specifically looking to stoke fans’ attention outside official city boundaries, places like Ancaster and Burlington.

Yes, the 100th Grey Cup will be staged in Toronto. But one party alone is not the salve to alleviate the CFL’s ails in the country’s biggest city, Cohon knows.

It seems the commish - whose own five-year contract is up in 2012- has wholly placed his faith in David Braley, the 70-year-old Conservative senator who owns a quarter of the league’s teams, the Argos and Lions. Braley turned the Lions into a business winner; this bodes well for Toronto, Cohon insists.

The future of football in Rogers Centre is a longer-term question, everyone knows. Maybe Braley can convince Ontario preem Dalton McGuinty to do a Gordon Campbell and pony up $600-million or so to refurb the stadium once known as the SkyDome.

Braley, and his business savvy, and track record in CFL, is good evidence that he, Cohon declares, “knows what it takes.”

Braley, and Cohon, and the league’s governors, better had know, if the star-crossed CFL is to extend its so-called renaissance into something more lasting.

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