CFL commissioner Orridge to naysayers: ‘You’re hating on yourself’

CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge addresses a crowd at the Princes' Gate in Toronto upon the arrival of the CFL Grey Cup on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

In a suite with a skyline view at Toronto’s Delta hotel, Jeffrey Orridge is bouncing around like a kid on Christmas morning. This will be the CFL commissioner’s bunker for the week but he doesn’t plan to be here much. In fact, he can’t wait to hit the town. He sees Grey Cup Week as an “exclusive pass” to be where fans of the game are.

“This is a representation of Canada,” says Orridge, who is a native of Queens, N.Y. “It is one thing that is totally yours! As an outsider I love it.”

Orridge is optimistic about the league’s future, but knows not everyone in Canada is.

“Why so many who claim to love the country are quick to tear [the CFL] down I’ll never understand,” he says. “You’re hating on yourself.”

In a wide-ranging discussion, Orridge explained why, despite the naysayers and the league’s recent public struggles, he believes the CFL is in prime position for success.

Donnovan Bennett Much of the focus is on the Grey Cup game but for hosting cities it really is a week-long commitment.
Jeffrey Orridge It needs to be because the Grey Cup is that big. I don’t think many other entities around the world can boast that they have a celebration that’s been held 104 times. Last year almost one in every three Canadians tuned in to some part of that game. It’s that kind of event.

DB In the off-season, “CFL week” will take place in the football capital of Canada, Saskatchewan. What was the thought process behind adding that to the CFL calendar?
JO Putting the combine, photo shoot and “carwash,” as we call it, as well as executive meetings in one place, in one period, in March is the best way to showcase our players. We’re flying in 50 of our superstars, so it’s about giving fans that extra level of engagement which is what the athletes love as well.

DB During the season, it seemed every week the discussion after games was about officiating. What did you make of the struggles we saw in officiating?
JO No question there have been controversial calls. No question we’ve made mistakes from time to time. I’m disappointed, people around the league are disappointed, but nobody is more disappointed than the official involved because they strive to be perfect. We spend an inordinate amount of time training officials and those officials are rated on every play in every game. That’s how they get their assignments. Often times there are demotions as well. We’ve had to send people back to the university ranks when they don’t grade out well. It’s really about experience and continued development.

DB Your fine and salary-cap deduction due to the Saskatchewan Roughriders roster management issues was criticized on the hand as being too lenient and as on the other as not being harsh enough. Do you have any regrets about that decision or how it was communicated?
JO The only way you can absolutely avoid any criticism is to do nothing. I am filling one of the roles of my job in meting out sanctions according to rules and the policies that were established well before I came into the league as commissioner. As you recall the Riders weren’t the only ones that had a roster management violation this year. Every team is constantly monitored and reviewed to make sure they are adhering to all the rules.

DB [Riders head coach] Chris Jones hinted that he wasn’t alone in this practice and it was much more widespread.
JO I can only act on evidence. The evidence that I’ve seen over the last 18 months indicates it is not widespread. I can’t speak to what people speculate has happened in the past. I can only deal with what we at the league office have observed. I aggregate all the evidence and make a decision based on what we’ve compiled.

DB One of the league’s best innovations was having mic’d players included in the live broadcast but in an October game, the Edmonton Eskimos refused to cooperate. Did you consider their concerns legitimate when deliberating on discipline?
JO The board of governors mandated mic’ing players and coaches for the remainder of the year and that was across the board. I don’t know if there were many coaches or general managers who were jumping up and down with joy about it. But they did it because they realized it was in the best interest of the game. During the first mic’d game we had a 14 percent increase in ratings. It was one of our highest rated games. The idea was this is something fans want so let’s roll it out in a bigger way, but make sure no team is unduly disadvantaged—that’s why every team was required to participate. So yes, I was extraordinarily disappointed when the actions of one coach were contrary to what the board of governors had mandated.

DB Did you speak to [Edmonton head coach] Jason Maas directly about this issue?
JO The conversation had been had with each one of the coaches prior to being mic’d and all the rationale for it was expressed and everyone agreed to it so yes it was quite surprising that right before game time coach Maas made a unilateral decision not to wear the mic.

DB Why have the Toronto Argos failed to resonate the way expected after the move BMO?
JO Perhaps in hindsight the expectations were a little too high. When you consider new ownership and new management in a brand new stadium, the season-ticket base went up 100 percent. Twice as many people purchased season tickets this year. There was a 14 percent increase in attendance, 17 percent increase in viewership and in our 18- to 49-year-old demo, which is an area of focus for me, there is a 52 percent increase in viewership. Several years ago people didn’t think the province of Ontario could sustain three CFL teams. There were naysayers who believed Hamilton would never get off the ground. Now they are selling the stadium out. People were naysayers about Ottawa and look what they’ve done. Consecutive sell-outs, second consecutive Grey Cup. So when you look at things in context we know that the Argos are only going to succeed in grand fashion over time.

DB What have you learned from monitoring other leagues and what can some of your contemporaries learn from you?
JO That’s a really tough question. I’m particularly proud of our community involvement and that we’ve been progressive whether it be rule changes or initiatives around inclusion. I was the first commissioner to march in the Gay Pride parade and then Adam Silver followed suit in the NBA. Our use of video replay is closely being monitored by other leagues. I’m interested in how others are using analytics both in ticket sales and in learning about their consumer to give more of what the fans want. Many leagues have similar problems with managing stadium availability so we can all learn on that end.

DB On Sunday you’ll have the unique experience of touching the Grey Cup without being hit by anyone or lifting and weights to do it. What’s it like to hand out the Grey Cup to the eventual champions?
JO I can’t put it in words. It can be overwhelming at times when you realize this is one of the most coveted trophies in sports. All the history and tradition behind it and now there are people literally around the world experiencing the energy, excitement and watching the competition. What’s better than that?