The Canadian Football League – Jeffrey Orridge Discusses Year 2 In the Commissioner’s Office

By Angus Gillespie

The arrival of summer brings with it another action-packed season of the Canadian Football League, a national sport steeped in rich tradition from coast to coast. It’s the league made famous through decades of exciting, fire-brand of offensive play-calling as well as numerous notorious Grey Cup championships including the 1962 Fog Bowl at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium and the 1977 Ice Bowl in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, where the hometown Alouettes slid to victory over the Edmonton Eskimos in field conditions more conducive for hockey than football. Fast forward to last year and we had the Eskimos’ big victory over the newest kid on the block, the Ottawa REDBLACKS in Winnipeg.

Other than the climate-controlled domed stadiums of Toronto and Vancouver, (and in the past Montreal), the CFL has played its games in conditions ranging from intensely hot to freezing cold and everything in between, which in many ways is a mirror reflection of Canada itself. It’s a resilient league that has always persevered, even during the ups and downs of some financially difficult rollercoaster years. But one constant is that the league has always retained a loyal throng of fans. In fact, a nationwide survey conducted by the University of Lethbridge in 2006 determined the CFL was the second most popular sports league in the nation, behind only the National Hockey League.

As the 2016 regular season recently kicked off at BMO Field in Toronto it brought about the start of the sophomore year of the CFL’s 13th Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, who has big plans to take the league to the next level during his tenure at the helm. The New York City native comes from a strong career background in sports and business management. Prior to joining the CFL he was Executive Director at CBC Sports, previous to which he was at Right to Play International, Mattel, Warner Bros., Reebok and USA Basketball.

“I believe that those experiences have really positioned me well to take on the challenges here,” Orridge says, who began his career as a corporate lawyer fight out of Harvard Law School. “I’ve been involved in sport but most importantly I’ve been involved in the business of sport.”

Orridge and his wife have lived in Toronto for almost a decade now and have two young sons. He had himself hoped to have been a professional athlete, but being the commissioner of a major sports league is every bit as good – if not better. He subscribes to the theory that in order to be successful you must listen, learn, prepare, plan and execute.

During the exclusive interview with CBJ, Orridge says he really liked what he saw in his first year with the CFL, which he’s been a fan of for many years.

“From a competitive standpoint, the games were close, scoring was up and there was level of unpredictability in the outcome, which may have been unprecedented where there were so many games that were decided by six points or less, often in the last three minutes of the game,” he recalls. In terms of excitement, enthusiasm and unpredictability and all the things that you look to sport for, last season had it all.”

It is readily apparent Orridge is a results-driven individual who recognizes that, to expand and improve upon a brand, it’s essential to directly address areas that are cause for concern. He believes that in order to remove an obstacle, you need to address it head on. If Orridge follows through on his pledge to be proactive in solving problems, it can only make the league that much stronger.

“One disappointing aspect was the number of quarterback injuries,” the commissioner candidly states. “We certainly want to see our marquee quarterbacks out there more often, but at the same time it gave some emerging talent the opportunity to be showcased.”

In the major leagues, off-seasons are every bit as important – and busy – as the playing season itself. It’s a year round mission to remain on top of everything from a business standpoint. This past offseason was no different, with the commissioner and his executive team aiming to make immediate strides towards enhancing the brand beyond its current scope.

“Off the field there are many things that we accomplished in short order,” Orridge says. “I inherited a drug policy, which by a lot of standards was sub-par, so we went about enhancing that and making it more transparent by having more meaningful sanctions and developing a more robust drug policy. We instituted new anti-tampering rules related to coaches, as well as a new branding and marketing strategy.”

Player Health & Safety

Player health and safety is always top of mind, but in a sport like football where violent collisions are part of the game, it’s even more crucial to do everything possible to protect the welfare of the players, who are the primary assets. Part of such a safety plan includes having officials who are well in tune with the latest rules and regulations.

“We launched officiating development including our exchange program with the NFL along with an expanded use of replay. We’ve got a video official on the player health and safety side,” Orridge says. “We’ve expanded other rules and reduced the number of padded practices in working with the union on that. We’ve got an injury spotter in the booth now that can recognize if anybody is in distress for better assessment in executing concussion protocol.”

Orridge exudes a high level of energy and enthusiasm and his excitement for what’s ahead is evident in his voice. It’s clear that he is proud of what the league has been able to accomplish during a very short period of time. He has identified several key targeted areas, and plans to do everything possible to make continued improvements.

“Player health and safety has always been paramount for the league for so many reasons,” Orridge says. “The players are our greatest asset, not only on the field but in the community as well. Helping to ensure their high level of performance and longevity not only makes human sense but it also makes business sense.”

Orridge believes that the fundamental training he has accrued in terms of his legal background has certainly helped his cause. The role of the commissioner has evolved over time, having become far more comprehensive and complex than it was in the past. We are now living in a society that is much more litigious and there are many more transactional components to sport. There are also the marketing and licencing aspects and constantly searching for new revenue streams and attracting a new generation of fans. All of that requires a strong business person, in addition to a lover of sport.

“My role really is to continue to help evolve this league and to meet and exceed the current fans’ expectations as well as to attract the attention of that next generation of fans,” Orridge adds.

Stadium Upgrades

Although some regions of the country will bristle at the notion, Toronto must be one of lynchpins to the league’s future success. That will be made infinitely more likely now that the Argonauts have moved out of the cavernous Rogers Centre, which at times felt more like a mausoleum than a football stadium. The far more fan-friendly BMO Field offers numerous improvements, including better sightlines and an intimate setting and where loud, raucous fans can be seen and heard. In addition to the new playing field for the Argonauts, there is also a buzz in Toronto this year thanks to a new ownership group, led by Larry Tanenbaum and Bell, who combined represent a sizable portion of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, sans Rogers Communications. Orridge is ecstatic about the team’s new owners and home, which has a seating capacity of 26,500.

“The season kicked off at BMO Field on June 23 and it will culminate with the Grey Cup,” he says. “The Argonauts’ move to BMO Field is very exciting because it’s a new beginning and certainly it’s going to enhance the profile of the city of Toronto. It’s a social and intimate environment and conducive to incredible energy.”

This CFL job appears to offer Orridge a great amount deal-making opportunities and a chance to really put his own stamp on the league. In addition to that, teams are coming up with new ideas to make the game-day experience that much more enjoyable for the fans.

“There’s also an innovation where they are tailgating for the first time in Toronto so that will create a broader fan experience for families,” Orridge mentions. “We continue to put fans first. It’s got all the elements of just a great day, and great new season and era for the Argos and I think it also represents a new era for the CFL.”

All nine teams are either now playing in new facilities or ones that have had considerable upgrades. The new Mosaic Stadium in Regina is still being constructed but should be ready for the Saskatchewan Roughriders to inhabit by July of next year. It will house 33,000 fans and come with 38 corporate executive suites. Investors Group Field in Winnipeg opened three years ago and has a seating capacity of 33,500 and 33 corporate executive suites for Blue Bombers’ games. B.C Place Stadium in Vancouver underwent major renovations between 2009 and 2011, including a brand new roof. It has a seating capacity of 54,500 for the Lions along with 50 private suites. Commonwealth Stadium has been home to the Eskimos since being built for the Commonwealth Games in 1978. It most recently had major renovations and has a seating capacity of 56,300. McMahon Stadium in Calgary is somewhat older, but has had recent renovations and has a seating capacity of 35,400 for Stampeders’ fans.

In the east, Hamilton is now playing out of Tim Horton’s Field, which was originally built for the 2015 Pan Am Games and has a capacity of 24,000 for the rowdy ‘Oskee Wee Wee’ Tiger-Cats’ fans. The fortunes of the Montreal Alouettes did a complete 180-degree turn for the better when they moved out of the cavernous and dilapidated Olympic Stadium in favour of McGill Stadium, where a full-house of 24,000 fans makes the excitement an amazing experience. Finally, TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, (originally Lansdowne Park and formerly Frank Clair Stadium) is a 24,000-seat venue where the REDBLACKS play their home games. Substantial upgrades were made back in 2010.

Improved facilities are a big part of the overall enjoyment of the game-day experience for fans, whose interest is what ultimately drives the success of the league. The commissioner wants to ensure that all fans feel as if they are truly part of their team’s extended family.

“As much as people consume the product on the field they are very interested in consuming the experience and that’s a unique aspect of the CFL. It’s an accessible league and you can really enjoy that sense of community. The new stadiums are much more socially oriented and fan focused. It’s a brand new feeling in hospitality,” Orridge says.

Throughout the years the CFL has always maintained strong television numbers with TSN being the current national rights holder. There has also been international coverage in the U.S. via ESPN as well as into the United Kingdom on BT.

“Our goal is to continue to export this incredible Canadian product and expand our reach and be part of the global conversation when it comes to sport,” Orridge continues. “With our relationship with ESPN and augmenting that in a four-year relationship with BT (British television) and having games broadcast in the UK and Ireland it’s all part and parcel to the same thing.”

In addition to expanding television coverage worldwide, the CFL did a deal with Google at the end of the year where the Grey Cup was brought to people in more than 150 countries.

Expansion: Go East, Young Man?

Now that all nine franchises are on stable financial footing, the inevitable question of expansion is never far off. Given that there are five teams in the West division and just four in the East, the ideal situation from a scheduling point of view would be to have one more team in the east. The CFL has held exhibition games in places such as Quebec City, Halifax and Moncton, and all were a resounding success. But Orridge is mindful that expanding just for the sake of doing so serves no purpose at all if there is not a viable business plan in place that will ensure long-term success in terms of fan interest and financial stability. Orridge has his plate full with other primary issues, but is expansion even on the outer perimeter of the league’s radar screen?

“Expansion is always something that we would consider as long as it makes sense,” Orridge responds. “It’s got to make business sense along with the emotional impetus for it to happen. The three things we always need to have with expansion: strong ownership, a great stadium and excellent corporate support. As long as you have those three elements we have no doubt that wherever the next team might be placed we would have a community that would be passionately devoted to supporting it.”

The CFL is pleased with Ottawa’s expansion just a couple of years ago, but it’s apparent they are going to tread lightly to ensure there are no missteps with future potential teams. In other words, it’s safe to say there won’t be any more reincarnations of the Shreveport Pirates, et al.

Visions for the Future

The ability to engage more of that next generation of fans and to be able to reach out to a more diverse marketplace is high on the wish list for Orridge. He wants to captivate that younger fan base in order to build on the many generations of CFL fans who have come before.

“I’d like a broader reach not only in Canada but outside our borders, including the U.S. where almost half of our players are from. It makes sense to have more of a presence in terms of consumption of the CFL south of the border as well as global,” he says. “As I mentioned before, player health and safety is paramount for us. Anything and everything we can do to enhance that will be our focus.”

As far as Orridge is concerned it is full steam ahead. “I’m extremely excited about the new season – a new brand – and a new era.”