Jeffrey Orridge knows plenty of commissioners.
The former head of sports at CBC has done business with Gary Bettman (NHL) and Adam Silver (NBA) for years. He has picked the brain of Roger Goodell (NFL), and dined with the former boss of the Canadian Footbal League, Mark Cohon. But the new CFL commissioner insists that while he's learned from each of those men, job comparisons don't really apply since each commissioner has to address issues specific to their sport.
The CFL that Orridge is taking on, in fact, is entering an entirely new era. Its 2015 season kicks off Thursday, less than two months after his first day on the job. And one of the things that makes it different is Orridge himself: The 54-year-old New York native is the first black commissioner of a major North American sports league, not to mention the first CFL commish who didn't grow up in Canada.
He inherits a league that made strides under Cohon. The league welcomed Ottawa back into the fold with the birth of the RedBlacks in 2014, and teams have replaced their crumbling stadiums with $2-billion worth of new facilities. The CFL struck a fresh TV deal with TSN, implemented its first drug-testing policy, and hammered out a new salary cap and four-year collective bargaining agreement with the players.
But there's still plenty to do. Three-down football badly needs to attract younger fans; draft rules aimed at making the game more exciting; make all nine franchises profitable; and fix the Toronto Argonauts' dwindling popularity in the league's most vexing market.
Orridge, a Harvard-educated lawyer, draws on a diverse list of professional experiences, including stints working for brands such as Reebok, Mattel and Warner Brothers. He was on the marketing team behind USA Basketball's superstar-loaded 1992 Olympic Dream Team, he strategized for Right To Play whe he first came to Canada, and he negotiated sports broadcast deals for the CBC.
"The league has advanced leaps and bounds from when Mark inherited this role eight years ago – we're no longer in turn-around mode," said Orridge, settling in for a lengthy interview at a park across the street from the CFL's head office. "Not every team is profitable yet, so that's the idea. And I want the fan experience inside and outside the stadiums to be the best in North America."
Orridge grew up in the borough of Queens, just a stone's throw from Shea Stadium, and he was wild about sports. His father was a subway conductor, his mother a nurse and social worker. The man who today stands 5-foot-8 often jokes that he never got that growth spurt his parents promised him. He played loads of sports anyway, starring in track and field and as a point guard through high school and at Amherst College.
Previous jobs, whether working for Reebok on Shaquille O'Neal's first branded shoe or promoting basketball's Dream Team stars, were far different than marketing Canada's working-class football players, but the appeal of heroes is universal.
"We have guys who should be household names and on cereal boxes in this country, but they're not," said Scott Flory, president of the CFL Players Union. "People need to get a better sense of how good our athletes are in the CFL. I think promotion of our players can be done a lot more."
During his tenure at CBC, Orridge helped to land broadcast rights for Olympic Games from 2014 through 2020 (as well as the upcoming Pan Am/Parapan Games in Toronto) after other broadcasters lost their appetite for bidding wars. CBC was lauded for the popularity of its digital coverage in 2014 of the Sochi Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup.
But under Orridge CBC also lost its longstanding national rights to NHL broadcasts. But he arranged a deal with Rogers Communications Inc., the new rights-holder, to keep CBC staff involved in hockey production. Some blamed Orridge for letting the NHL rights get away, while others said CBC never had a prayer of competing with Rogers' deep pockets.
"There were 5.2 billion reasons why CBC wasn't able to retain the rights to the NHL," said Orridge, alluding to the price Rogers paid in a 12-year deal. "I think the great thing was being able to salvage the relationship that hockey has with the Canadian public, that hockey is still on the national broadcaster and that its free to air on Saturday nights. We turned something that wasn't ideal into optimizing revenue for the CBC."
Orridge says he researched the CFL at length while he was at CBC, and would have bid for its rights had they become available.
"Part of my strategy at CBC was to focus on properties that were uniquely Canadian, and the two most quintessentially Canadian were hockey and the CFL," said Orridge. "I knew how iconically Canadian it was, so it was really exciting when I got the call to be considered for the CFL commissioner's role."
Orridge was among the candidates identified by an executive search firm the league hired.
"He brings a lot of different perspectives than we had at the table before he joined us," said Andrew Wetenhall, who represents the Montreal Alouettes on the CFL's board of governors. "We already have lots of people who remember Grey Cups from 30 years ago, but that's not all that helpful in securing fans in 2015 and beyond. I think we've found someone who understands the Canadian media landscape in a way that can really lead this league forward."
Since assuming the job, Orridge has presided over his first player entry draft and announced an extension to the CFL's deal with TSN through 2021. He has also had to address harsh criticisms of the league's drug policy after three university players who tested positive at this year's CFL combine this spring were still drafted into the league.
He has announced a couple of deals that were well in hand before he took office. First was a partnership with Whistle Sports, a fast-growing online network that's reaching millions of millennial subscribers with unique sports content on its network of YouTube channels. Second was the sale of the Toronto Argonauts that includes their move from cavernous Rogers Centre to cozier BMO Field in 2016.
"[Former Argos owner] David Braley owning two teams gave the CFL a rinky-dink feel, and a sense of unsophistication, but the sale of the Argos helps with legitimacy," said Richard Powers, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "The pieces are all in place for this commissioner. Now it's up to him to pull everything together and build on a successful rejuvenation of the league's brand."
"Throughout my career, I've been surrounded by really intelligent people who fostered my interests and marketing intelligence," said Orridge, who lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons, aged 10 and 5. "I know I'm going to face challenges that are totally new, but I'm a problem-solver at heart, and I want to add value to this league."