Renaissance Man

KIRK PENTON

, Last Updated: 7:22 AM ET

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon was doing the interview over the phone, but you could tell by his voice that he was smiling on the other end.

And why wouldn't he be?

His league's attendance continues to be the highest it's been in more than two decades, and TV ratings are expanding in the most important demographic.

Translation: Cha-ching!

The Canadian Football League is enjoying quite the renaissance. Pick any topic affecting the league, and most will agree it's great, it's on the verge of being great, or let them tackle it and one day it'll be great.

(Just don't bring up the letters N, F or L, and everything will be fine).

"The league's very healthy," Cohon said. "Canadians really are rallying to our league this year."

After pointing out that the average attendance figure is more than 29,000 (on par with last year's number, which was the highest since 1983) and that TV ratings are up 11% over 2007 (approximately 400,000 people are watching each game), Cohon brought up what he believes is the biggest reason for the league's current success.

"More than ever, which is so exciting, the games have been really great," he said. "Scoring is up, penalties are down, games are close. The CFL that we all love has really shown itself this year."

Lots of fans and even more TV viewers will make any team executive member happy, especially when there are 30% more people between the ages of 18 of 34 tuning into CFL games this year than there were in 2007.

"It makes the advertisers happy, too," said Rick LeLacheur, Edmonton Eskimos president and CEO.

LeLacheur, who stepped into Hugh Campbell's gigantic shoes two years ago, agreed that Cohon's CFL is remarkably healthy. In fact, when LeLacheur was asked to pinpoint the last time the league was this fit, he was stumped.

"I don't really know," he said.

When the commissioner and an alternate governor from the West Division agree on something, you know life is beautiful in the three-down loop.

"The measurement to me is always, and we've been through a lot over a lot of years, is when everybody, in particular the media, are reporting on what happens on the field versus what happens in the board room," LeLacheur said.

He then mentioned that the governors hadn't had a meeting in a long time.

That says a lot right there.

- - -

Cohon, a protege of NBA commissioner David Stern, came to the CFL last spring vowing, among other things, to get more 20-somethings watching the game and to celebrate the athletes.

He believes the league's new five-year contract with TSN has played an important role in attracting young fans who had slipped through the cracks.

Aside from broadcasting every game this year on either TSN or TSN2, the network has increased its coverage as well.

"They've done a great job of bringing sports fans even deeper into our league and bringing in the younger generation," Cohon said.

As for promoting the players, the latest Future Shop commercial featuring Kerry Joseph and Jesse Lumsden can only be viewed as a step in the right direction.

Never mind that Joseph is benched and Lumsden is always hurt. When's the last time a pair of prominent CFLers acted in a national TV ad?

Cohon is trying to get his players out there.

"One of the things that I said when I came -- this is from my days working at the NBA -- is that we really have to profile our players," he said.

"... It shows that we're committed to making our players household names. That's an important message as well."

The interviews with Cohon and LeLacheur were going swimmingly until those three little letters from that football league south of the border were mentioned.

Both suddenly came down with lockjaw.

LeLacheur directed all questions about the NFL in Toronto to Cohon, who pointed out once again that things are going well in the CFL.

"We're focused on what we have to do," he said.

The arrival of the NFL in Canada would be the biggest challenge the CFL has ever faced.

The four-down footballers aren't coming tomorrow or the next day, however, so there promises to be several years of waiting, wondering and worrying.

So even though the league is rocking right now, the question has planted itself in the back of many minds: What will happen when it finally gets here? It somewhat tempers the league's current success, even if the powers at be don't want to talk about it.

The CFL actually kicked off its counterattack of the NFL earlier this year with the campaign/slogan/theme "This Is Our League," which included a goose bump-inducing commercial intended to tug on our patriotic heart strings.

(Also, there are those in the blogosphere who believe it's not a coincidence that Cohon referred to Toronto's home stadium as SkyDome, instead of Rogers Centre, in a video on cfl.ca last month. Ted Rogers was the driving force behind bringing the Buffalo Bills to Toronto for an eightgame series over the next five years.)

Cohon, who is in the second of a five-year contract, has admitted previously that the NFL is likely coming to Canada and that all he can do is try to ensure that the CFL is sturdy if, or when, that day arrives.

Asked if he smiled when more than a few tickets to last month's pre-season game between the Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers had to be given away, Cohon did not engage.

"I gotta make sure that we're doing our job," he said.

Since possible NFL expansion to Canada was off the table, Cohon and LeLacheur discussed two other important issues concerning the league's future: expansion and facilities.

Cohon remains optimistic that the CFL will return to Ottawa, while LeLacheur can't wait for the day when there are 10 teams in the league.

"My focus is really making sure we get Ottawa back up and healthy and strong," Cohon said, "but we can do other things."

The CFL has already had preliminary talks with officials in Moncton about conducting a pre-season or regular-season game in that city's new stadium, which will be completed in 2010.

"That's part of our longerterm strategy," Cohon said, "making sure we seed other markets beyond just our core markets right now."

The other great debates in CFL cities lately have revolved around places to play. It's no secret that aging stadiums in Winnipeg, Regina and Hamilton need work, if not replacing.

"Facilities are still something that has to be addressed," LeLacheur said. "A good facility really helps you in putting out the product."

Cohon would not get specific when asked what he thought the league would look like in five years, but getting more people to love the Canadian game will continue to be his No. 1 priority.

"The main thing," he said, "is making sure that we're continuing to connect with the next generation of fans."

That is a must if the CFL is going to have any chance of fending off the NFL and keeping the good times rolling.


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