Wright right on

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:39 AM ET

Tom Wright is a proud Canadian and a zealous sports fan, to boot. The commissioner of the Canadian Football League has turned around an organization that was on life support before he was hired in Edmonton a day before the 2002 Grey Cup.

When the former president of adidas Canada agreed to take the job, the CFL still owed the NFL $1.5 million of a $3-million loan and the broadcast agreement with TSN was up. Wright never backed away from a challenge and, as a result of his efforts, the debt to the NFL was paid off and the new TV agreements were put in place.

"Don't give me all the credit," said Wright over lunch. "In sports, no one person is responsible for success. Our success is the result of work by our talented staff in the league office and by all nine CFL clubs, as well as the CFL Players' Association. I was hired to build a co-operative labour relationship.

"As a proud Canadian, I realize that only a few of our (sports) organizations haven't been Americanized. If we don't protect our few precious assets, the border becomes blurred. A Canadian -- James Naismith -- invented basketball, but it's no longer Canada's game. Twenty years ago, the head office of the NHL was in Montreal. But the league is now run from New York."

Wright was just getting warmed up.

"The NHL is not Canada's league. The CFL is," he emphasized. "That's why we should trumpet to the world who we are. When the CFL expanded to the U.S. 10 years ago, our motto became somewhat irrelevant."

I was interested in why Wright would take it upon himself to save the CFL. One of the reasons, of course, was his passionate Canadianism, another his dedication to sports. Thirdly, he took it as a personal challenge to marry his business experience with his knowledge of sports.

One of Wright's mostly helpful pre-CFL experiences was his performance as president of the Special Olympics. The lessons learned there enabled him to pull together the nine CFL clubs. Last, but not least, having been in the sports business before, he learned how important ownership is, because the right owners make the right decisions.

"My first and foremost decision was to think of the football fan," Wright said. "Because we did that collectively, we have made progress. Mind you, the majority of our clubs are losing money. Still, the attendance keeps improving. In last year's Grey Cup, we set a record for attendance.

"The sponsorships are solid and the telecast of the 2004 Grey Cup was available to 60 million American homes in addition to another 175 countries. However, some clubs are still suffering. In the NFL, for instance, 50%-75% of a club's revenue comes from television. We provide only 10%-15%."

Wright's future plans include improvement of the officiating, tripling its investment on recruitment and training, as well as the testing of instant replays. The June 11 exhibition game between the Argos and the Hamilton Ticats in Halifax will be used to test instant replays. Ever the master planner, Wright will use the game to explore and evaluate expansion possibilities in the Maritimes.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

One of the first player agents, Gerry Patterson, passed away recently in St. Catharines. He represented many big names in hockey and baseball, including Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Don Cherry, Howie Meeker and Rusty Staub. Patterson was one of the few gentlemen-agents in the business ... Former Canadian Davis Cupper and television commentator Peter Burwash of Toronto started a tennis school which has mushroomed over the years all over the globe. In fact, his Peter Burwash International Tennis Schools organization will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Feb. 15. More than three million students have graduated from his schools ... A few tickets are still remaining for Jack Dominico's Toronto Maple Leafs Baseball Club Gala and Baseball Forum on May 7 at the Wyndham Bristol Place Hotel on Dixon Rd. Former greats such as Harmon Killebrew, Ferguson Jenkins, Luis Tiant, Cito Gaston and Ralph Kiner will be in attendance. For tickets call 416-631-2600.


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