Just like its big brother to the south, the Canadian Football League is doing everything humanly possible to make a nine-team house league into the No Fun League.
Under commissioner Mark Cohon, the CFL has become a big corporate/TV entity driven by its TSN ratings and its new corporate luxury suites – in its new stadiums – as well as its ability to create things like horrible-looking ‘third’ jerseys in order to find that sucker who’s born every minute. It’s a league that’s virtually forgotten its past in an effort to create more revenue right now and keep its players under the thumb of anonymity.
That’s why the CFL needs a guy like Pinball Clemons, the vice-chair of the Toronto Argos, to replace Cohon as commissioner. It needs a guy with a smile on his face who doesn’t look like Roger Goodell’s first cousin. It needs a guy who was a player – a good one – and a guy who cares deeply about the league. It needs a guy who is and always was accessible, a guy who operates by the Golden Rule and a guy who will put the ‘nice’ back into a league that has lost something with its new stadiums and its ice-cold corporate image.
Here’s an example: The complaint I hear most from my friends and colleagues is that teams like the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (especially the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) have decided to turn what was once the nicest, coolest, friendliest, most accessible league in professional sports into NFL North. Access to players is made as difficult as humanly possible and as a result we, as fans, don’t know the players as well as we used to. Like, not even close to as well as we used to.
Another example: Darrin Bauming was interviewing a reporter from Regina the other day. The reporter said, just in passing, “I was interviewing a couple of players in the airport…” and Bauming piped in with, “Isn’t that great. We aren’t allowed to interview players at the airport.” It was just a quick aside, but it said a lot about the Bombers and most of the other teams in the CFL. Keeping players away from the media – and the public, for that matter – is now the job of most CFL communications department.
Another example: Local TV stations used to record practices from start to finish. Here is what they see on practice schedules today (taken from a random Bombers practice schedule notice):
Saturday, June Whatever, 2014
Practice: 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Cameras can record practice from 10:20 a.m. – 10:40 a.m. Still photography of practice can begin at 10:10 a.m.
That’s a 20 minute window to shoot practice so fans can see what their local team is about. That’s hardly worth the effort.
Now, make no mistake, most fans don’t give a crap about the media’s problems – perceived or otherwise – but putting roadblocks in the way of accessibility is an indication that things are changing: And not necessarily for the better. The CFL used to be fun. Players were your neighbors. They were available for interviews all the time. They’d help you wash our car or even move. The local GM and head coach would hold sessions in their offices and not just with the media. Local business people would sit around Earl Lunsford’s office. Brendan Taman would invite anybody in. Paul Robson’s door was wide open. It was a community-owned football team and it operated accordingly.
But with the construction of Investors Group Field came a new era. It’s a big corporate entity run by a board that is more secretive now than it ever was in its 85-year history. Granted, the players are still underpaid, but now they’re being handled by the club’s media department as if they were making Winnipeg Jets money.
The CFL is going through some interesting growing pains. It’s still a league based in some relatively small Canadian communities – Hamilton, Winnipeg and Regina – but TSN, new stadiums and the corporate head office have made the league bigger than its britches – even if the flagship club in Toronto barely draws 18,000 people to its games.
Perhaps what the league needs is a less corporate image and a little more “How ya doin’? I’m Michael Clemons.” Maybe the league needs to get back to its roots, just a bit, and make people feel like it’s their league again. Yeah, it’s getting big and TSN and new stadiums and that corporate feel in Toronto has made it big.
But now that the CEO has decided to leave, it might do the league some good to have, as its face, a friendly accessible guy who came up through the ranks and can flash his smile and talk to the masses again.