As he completes his tenure as CFL commissioner, Mark Cohon is leaving the league in better shape now than when he took the reins eight years ago.
A blockbuster TV agreement that will net teams millions, several new or refurbished stadiums and an expansion team in Ottawa will be among the legacies he leaves behind. But as he steps down, the future of the Toronto Argonauts remains unclear and not fixing their problems will be one of his biggest regrets.
Cohon announced in August he wouldn't seek a contract extension when his current deal expires in April. In his final state-of-the-league address Friday at the Grey Cup, the 48-year-old acknowledged that his inability to resolve Toronto's stadium issue — the Argos still haven't found a new home with their Rogers Centre lease set to expire in 2017 — is a blemish on his record.
"Would I like to have had the bow tied around that before I leave as commissioner? Absolutely," Cohon said. "We have to change the experience for Argos fans and I think a new home is a big part of that puzzle."
Owner David Braley has lost millions operating the Argos since 2010. The struggling franchise averaged less than 18,000 spectators this season at the cavernous Rogers Centre, which can hold 50,000 fans for football.
Braley continues to negotiate with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment on a lease at the more intimate BMO Field. But that deal is contingent on the completion of a $125-million renovation at the outdoor facility.
MLSE is contributing $95 million toward the expansion with the city of Toronto agreeing to provide $10 million. But the anticipated funding of $10 million each from the provincial and federal governments hasn't materialized, potentially threatening completion of the project.
The Ontario Liberals are expected to contribute $10 million but the federal government is reportedly balking, creating a $10-million shortfall Cohon said the CFL could make up to secure the Argos' future.
"You look at everything, you look at all options," Cohon said. "That's a better option than building a new $150-$200 million stadium so I think you have to look at all scenarios and how would we consider any future investment in that opportunity for the partners to get that back."
In March 2013, Cohon helped negotiate a five-year deal with TSN reportedly worth $43 million a year that was more than 2 1/2 times the previous agreement. The result was increased league payments to its teams.
But the TV money was a hot-button topic this spring in a contentious, testy negotiation with the CFL Players' Association. The players voted to go on strike and threatened to walk just prior to the season before agreeing to a five-year deal at the last minute, ensuring the 2014 campaign started on time and clubs start sharing in the extra television revenue.
The Toronto issue and labour strife compounded what was a challenging final season for Cohon.
Injuries to proven offensive stars like quarterbacks Travis Lulay and Darian Durant, receivers Chad Owens and Any Fantuz as well as running backs Jon Cornish and C.J. Gable dramatically impacted the on-field product. Defences dominated as scoring and total offence were down — thanks in part to conservative offensive play. On Thursday, B.C. Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian became the first pure defensive performer to capture the league's outstanding player honour.
Off the field, attendance and the league's TV ratings were both down but Cohon remained bullish on the CFL's standing on the Canadian sports landscape.
"Let's put that into perspective," he said. "We're bigger than the NFL in this country, we're bigger than the Toronto Blue Jays in this country, much bigger than the NBA and the (Toronto) Raptors, which is a hot team in this country," Cohon said, without citing any specific data to support his claim.
"We're second only to the NHL in this country . . . but there are things we definitely need to focus upon."
Not the least of which is appealing to a younger demographic, most notably getting more children involved in minor football.
"Every year our teams invest between three and four million a year into amateur football," he said. "You have to get kids playing the game . . . you have to get to that young age."
There were successes in 2014 for the CFL, including a successful return to Ottawa. The expansion Redblacks posted just two wins but did sell out all of their home games.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats opened the season at 6,500-seat Ron Joyce Stadium before moving into the state-of-the-art Tim Hortons Field, going 6-0 at the 18,000-seat venue en route to advancing to the Grey Cup game for the second straight year.
Amazingly, Sunday's game still isn't a sellout. Cohon said over 50,000 tickets have been sold at B.C. Place Stadium but roughly 2,700 remain for the second Grey Cup game to be played there since 2011.
But over Cohon's tenure, Hamilton, Montreal, B.C., Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal have either moved into new stadiums or refurbished venues, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders scheduled to move into a new facility in 2017.
"We've entered what I think is a period of stability," Cohon said. "It's my hope this stability and strength we have today will give a long runway for the next commissioner."
The CFL is currently searching for Cohon's replacement with league board chairman Jim Lawson hoping the new commissioner will be in place by April.
"We're looking for someone with a strategic vision for the future," Lawson said. "Given the job Mark has done, I don't think there's a lot of low-hanging fruit right now.
"We've got to fix Toronto but we want someone who's strategic and can look five-to-10 years out to make sure this league continues to thrive In order for someone to come in and have that vision they've got to be able to run with it. I think that's what we'll get and I'm confident the board will let them do their job."