It came to Mark Cohon as he watched the expansion Ottawa RedBlacks run out into their sold-out new stadium this summer for the first time, the result of seven years of hard work to bring CFL football back to the nation's capital.
The league is in a good place, the commissioner thought at that moment. The time was ripe for him to move on.
Cohon, who succeeded Tom Wright in 2007, enters his final Grey Cup playoffs as commissioner this weekend after the 48-year-old recently announced he won't seek another term when his contract expires in April. He had mulled the decision over several months in conversations with his wife, Suzanne, and their eight-year-old daughter, Parker, who was just a baby when Cohon got that first call from a headhunter gauging his interest in the job.
The CFL has been able to tick off many boxes during his tenure as the 12th CFL commissioner: a ninth team, a few new stadiums, a new TV deal with TSN, the league's first drug-testing policy, implementing a salary cap, and labour peace with the players for the next four years.
Cohon, known for his smooth manner and stylish threads, found unique popularity in the working-class league, initiating fan tweet-ups and a yearly public State of the CFL, a new tradition of fans marching the Grey Cup to the stadium, and a "This is our league" ad campaign.
Cohon settles into the Rogers Centre media box for a lengthy, wide-ranging interview. A sparse crowd is slow to arrive in the cavernous dome before what will be his final Toronto Argonauts home game as commissioner. Cohon is prepared for the inevitable questions about this franchise, one glaring bit of unfinished business in his stint.
The club must vacate Rogers Centre by 2017.
However, Toronto's oldest sports franchise still has nowhere to go. While Cohon has taken part in discussions with owner David Braley and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment about moving the team to a refitted BMO Field, the matter has yet to be resolved. Even after winning the 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre just two years ago before a sold-out crowd of 53,208, the Argos haven't gained much popularity in Toronto's complex entertainment market.
"Maybe we should have done more drag-on investment coming out of the 100th Grey Cup," Cohon said. "But I know the TV numbers – we get 600,000-700,000 watching every Argos game, equal to the Jays and better than the Raptors, so the interest is there. Moving to a small, social, intimate venue works, and I'm hopeful we can move into BMO Field – there are ongoing conversations about that. I would have liked to tie a bow on that before I left, and is there still a chance? Yes. I know the Argos owner wants to do the right thing and is trying to figure out what that is, so I'm confident that will happen."
Cohon's cellphone rings several times during the interview – family members on their way to meet him in the stands for the game. He makes his visits to corporate suites at games, but sitting among the fans is where he has done the most learning. The son of McDonald's Canada founder George Cohon soaked up the first lesson of business as a young boy.
"I can remember seeing him when I was a kid; he would walk his restaurants, pick up garbage in the parking lots, sit down and talk to customers, talk to employees in the back," Cohon said. "I learned from him to talk to customers and listen to them, so that's what I brought here."
His father insisted Cohon and his brother follow their own paths instead of working for McDonald's. So he looked after animals at the Toronto Zoo, and took youth on an expedition in the Arctic. He worked for Major League Baseball, the NBA and AudienceView Ticketing.
The previous CFL commissioner, Tom Wright, had a positive tenure as CFL commissioner from 2002 to 2006, but consensus-building among the teams was trying.
"The CFL commissioner's job is one of the most challenging around," said Wright, who is now director of operations for UFC Canada. "Co-operation and competition are often at odds – and managing the board of governors is like herding cats – only more difficult. I think Mark has done an excellent job."
In 2007, Cohon had insisted the board offer him the post only if all eight owners voted him as their choice. They did. During his first day on the job, he visited the CFL website and demanded they remove an ad that read "Our balls are bigger" – a campaign he felt showed an inferiority complex about the NFL.
"I said we're not going to be the league that tries to compare ourselves to a $9-billion-a-year juggernaut," Cohon said. "Then we came out with the campaign 'This is our league.' We're authentically Canadian, affordable and accessible, and I wanted to stick by those things."
It seems everyone in the league has an anecdote about the commissioner's relationship with fans.
There was his first game in Regina, when an eight-year-old boy seated next to Cohon asked how he got such good tickets, and when Cohon said he was the new commissioner, the kid answered, "Yeah okay, and I'm the head coach."
There was the time when a Riders fan heckled Cohon for wearing a pair of expensive, stylish leather boots while sitting in the stands, to which the commissioner answered, "What size are you, buddy? Oh 8 1/2? Sorry, they don't make them in ladies' sizes," to a roar of laughter from the Riders faithful.
Cohon was once out for late-night pizza while in Moncton for Touchdown Atlantic, when some drunken patrons tried to pick an argument with the commissioner. A couple of CFL fans came to his side and said, "We've got your back."
"I can definitely recall hearing some comments from fans when he first took the job, like, 'Oh, look at the rich boy coming in looking for the spotlight and a stepping stone to his next big venture,' but he discounted those thoughts right away," said Jason Allen, one of the Box J Boys, a group of long-time Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans who wear black and gold kilts at every game. Cohon regularly visits the group.
"He's always asking us whether the team is meeting the expectations of the fan experience. It's hard to imagine another commissioner – like Gary Bettman – sitting peacefully with his fans. What the CFL was missing before Cohon was that level of marketing saavy, and he brought that."
The CFL's board had sometimes been fragmented in the past and aired their differences in the media. While disagreements within the board could be heated, Cohon insisted they be respectful and confidential.
"When he came in, it was a time of uncertainty – Ottawa had folded and our Grey Cups weren't as successful as they had been, but his years as commissioner have been full of upward movement," said Jim Hopson, president of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. "While he comes across as smooth, he has a lot of steel in his backbone – an iron fist in a velvet glove. He always looks like he just stepped off the cover of GQ, but he showed he could make connections with the average fan; he could sit down for a Pilsner with the Riders fans and be respected."
Cohon can recall a news conference early in his first year in Winnipeg's old stadium when the roof was leaking on him as he spoke. During his tenure, failing buildings were replaced in Winnipeg, Hamilton, Ottawa and B.C., with another on the way in Regina. Cohon surrounded himself with a good team. His work with corporate sponsors and on 100th Grey Cup celebrations polished the CFL's brand.
"It wasn't just about taking sponsors' money, but he got them to activate around jewel events," said Brian Cooper, president of S & E Sponsorship Group, a former president of the Argos and chair of the CFL's board. "The six-month tour of the Grey Cup on the train before the 100th Grey Cup was a terrific idea. All of that brought a lot of shine to an old product."
The league had many scrutinized moments too. In his first season, Cohon had to install and strictly enforce the $4.05-million salary cap system initiated by the previous regime. There were the unconventional optics in 2010 of David Braley buying a second CFL team. There was tough political opposition to overcome while trying to get a team back in Ottawa. Criticisms abounded this season when scoring dropped throughout the league. Two sets of labour negotiations during Cohon's tenure provided tense times.
"The last labour negotiation was very hard on our fans and our relationship with the players, and I think we've learned some important lessons from that," Cohon said. "I'll share this with the next commissioner: I would be much more methodical on a quarterly basis or several times a year about bringing the players in and showing them the books and explaining to them how the business is working."
The board has assembled a search committee, headed by board chair Jim Lawson, to seek a new commissioner.
"We'll have lots of high-quality interest in this job, and yes, it's a hard act to follow because of Mark's popularity, but the mandate here isn't necessarily to go out and find someone who is popular," Lawson said. "The next person has the benefit of the firm business footing Mark has left, especially the new stadiums. He has put the next commissioner in a very good position to succeed."
Cohon says he doesn't know what's next for him. Some have wondered if he's being considered as the next CEO of MLSE when Tim Leweike leaves the post next spring. Cohon sidesteps questions about it. But he does say he wants a job that's fun, one where he can make a difference, perhaps entrepreneurial or with a piece of ownership. He's interested in health and fitness, and working where sports influence communities.
"The idea of handing out the Grey Cup for the last time, it's bittersweet for me, and I'll miss this job," Cohon said. "Sometimes leaders don't know when it's time to go, but for me personally and professionally, it was time."