CFL still has work to do in Toronto, Hamilton

It's no secret that the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats are struggling at the gate....

It's no secret that the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats are struggling at the gate. (Craig Robertson/QMI Agency)

KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:52 PM ET

TORONTO - The struggle to find room at the sports dinner table in southern Ontario continues to be the big issue for Mark Cohon.

The well-dressed and charismatic CFL commish hit the ballroom at the Royal York Hotel Friday morning to deliver his annual state of the league address and promptly listed off everything that is going oh-so-well for the three-down loop. Attendance is up, ratings are up, sponsorships are up, merchandise sales are up. No wonder the guy smiles all the time.

Cohon said six of eight teams are making money, or breaking even, and you don't have to be a rocket surgeon to figure out the Argos and Tiger-Cats are the outsiders. However, the situation in southern Ontario is not dire.

The Argos and Tiger-Cats are owned by billionaires, so it's not like they're going to fold. There is a plan in place to rebuild both fan bases, but it's going to take some time.

Both franchises received $500,000 from their league brethren last year for marketing purposes, and more could be coming from the league's coffers. The Argos are targeting "new Canadians" and younger fans, and the buzz from the 100th Grey Cup this week will no doubt help.

The Tiger-Cats, meanwhile, are trying to expand their fan base to more parts of the Hamilton region. Playing their home games in Guelph next season will aid in that quest as well.

Cohon said both organizations had growth in many key areas in 2012, including attendance, television ratings and merchandise revenue.

The Ticats are building a new stadium on the current Ivor Wynne Stadium site, which is why Guelph will be their temporary home, but there is nothing on the horizon for the Argos. Their practice facilities at the University of Toronto-Mississauga are awful, and playing in the half-empty Rogers Centre doesn't help.

Cohon would love to see a massive football facility in Toronto one day, a place where the Argos can practise and play, and where clinics for young players can be held. Don't hold your breath.

"If you've spoken to (owner) David Braley or (CEO) Chris Rudge, you know what they're trying to do is make the Rogers Centre work," Cohon said. "And you will see on Sunday, when that stadium is full, it's exciting."

Cohon then noted most of the league's new stadiums have capacities in the 25,000 range.

"That's perfect for CFL football, and a long-term plan should incorporate a strategy around potentially a new stadium in the Toronto region," he said.

Aside from that, the rest of Cohon's to-do list for the next 100 years consists of making league aspects that are already good even better. Some examples:

* The lineup of teams will go from eight to nine in 2014 with the addition of Ottawa's franchise. Cohon said it's "very important for that franchise to be competitive," and the league has tried to ensure that will happen with friendly expansion-draft rules. Atlantic Canada or Quebec remain options for a 10th franchise, but that's a pipe dream right now with no pro-sized stadium in place.

* The league's television contract with TSN will expire after the 2013 season, and the league is well-positioned to make a little more money with the next deal. Ratings were up 6% on TSN this season, and Cohon hasn't ruled out opening up the bidding to other networks.

* Cohon isn't ready to bring back the option-year window that allows players to bolt to the NFL with a year left on their contract. The CFL doesn't want it so it can keep its star players, while GMs want it back to attract better talent. "I would have to be convinced to change that, and I'm not convinced yet," Cohon said.

* Long-term goals for Cohon, who has three years remaining on his contract, include recruiting the next generation of fans, how to get new Canadians into the game, video games and fantasy gaming.

kirk.penton@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/PentonKirk


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