CFL com­mis­sioner to step down

Jef­frey Or­ridge will re­main on the job un­til June 30, un­clear why he’s leav­ing

Toronto Star - - NEWS - MOR­GAN CAMP­BELL SPORTS RE­PORTER

Two years into his ten­ure, Jef­frey Or­ridge is out as the Cana­dian Foot­ball League’s com­mis­sioner.

The CFL broke the news in a press re­lease Wed­nes­day morn­ing, ex­plain­ing Or­ridge would re­main on the job un­til June 30 be­fore he and the league “part ways.”

League of­fi­cials aren’t com­ment­ing pub­licly on the end of the re­la­tion­ship, and their pub­lished state­ment is thin on con­crete de­tails. But the news re­lease hints at a con­flict be­tween Or­ridge, a U.S.-born sports mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive who once headed CBC Sports, and the CFL’s board of di­rec­tors.

“While the board and I have dif­fer­ing views on the fu­ture of the league, we both be­lieve pas­sion­ately in this game, its play­ers, its part­ners and its fans. I wish the CFL great suc­cess in the fu­ture,” Or­ridge said in the news re­lease.

CFL spokesper­son Paulo Senra said the league won’t elab­o­rate on rea­sons for the split with Or­ridge, who was hired in March 2015.

Or­ridge, a Har­vard-ed­u­cated mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive who also headed cam­paigns at Ree­bok and USA Bas­ket­ball, didn’t im­me­di­ately re­turn a call to his cell­phone.

Or­ridge as­sumed the CFL’s top job four months af­ter the Jan­uary 2015 de­par­ture of Mark Co­hon, who had run the league since 2007, and leaves be­hind a legacy as a sports busi­ness pi­o­neer, as well as stub­born prob­lems for his suc­ces­sor to solve.

While he grew up in Queens, N.Y., Or­ridge told re­porters upon his hir­ing he had al­ways ad­mired the CFL be­cause of its pro­gres­sive record on race, not­ing African-Amer­i­can play­ers like War­ren Moon were al­lowed to shine at quar­ter­back when NFL teams wanted to con­vert them to re­ceivers or de­fen­sive backs. And in tak­ing the job, Or­ridge be­came the first black com­mis­sioner of a main­stream North Amer­i­can pro sports league.

As com­mis­sioner he stressed fur­ther diver­sity, par­tic­i­pat­ing in To- ronto’s Pride Pa­rade, while the league worked with LGBTQ sports ad­vo­cacy group You Can Play on an ap­parel line and hosted an LGBTQthemed party dur­ing Grey Cup week last Novem­ber.

But Or­ridge ap­peared less than pro­gres­sive dur­ing a state-of-the-CFL news con­fer­ence Grey Cup week, when he re­fused to ad­mit a re­la­tion­ship be­tween foot­ball and de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­eases like CTE.

Still, his will­ing­ness to cul­ti­vate non-tra­di­tional au­di­ences ex­em­pli­fies the mar­ket­ing acu­men that ap­peared to qual­ify Or­ridge for the CFL’s stiffest chal­lenge: grow­ing the league as at­ten­dance and TV rat­ings de­cline.

The dilemma pre­dates Or­ridge’s ten­ure.

In 2012, CFL games drew an av­er­age at­ten­dance of 28,193, ac­cord­ing to CFLdb.ca, com­pared with 24,737 in 2015, Or­ridge’s first year on the job. By last sea­son that num­ber had dropped to 24,692.

Mean­while, the 2016 Grey Cup in Toronto re­port­edly drew the small­est TV au­di­ence since 2006.

While the league pointed out that the Grey Cup’s on­line au­di­ence grew 35 per cent over the pre­vi­ous year, the well-doc­u­mented strug­gle to sell tick­ets to its mar­quee matchup high­lighted how far Or­ridge and the CFL still were from solv­ing their tough­est puz­zle: Toronto.

In a De­cem­ber in­ter­view with the Star, Or­ridge sounded op­ti­mistic about the CFL’s fu­ture in its big­gest city, em­pha­siz­ing im­proved sea­son ticket sales and TV rat­ings.

“We’re . . . very con­fi­dent that the Ar­gos can build on that progress,” Or­ridge said.

“There are more peo­ple check­ing out the Ar­gos than have been pre­vi­ously. Those are all good in­di­ca­tors that we’ve got some good trac­tion.” But even af­ter mov­ing to BMO Field the Ar­gos fin­ished last in the CFL in at­ten­dance, draw­ing just 16,380 per game.

The league isn’t dis­cussing de­tails about how and when they’ll find a suc­ces­sor.

In an email to the Star, CFL spokesper­son Senra said only that “the board will be dis­cussing this mat­ter and they’ll move for­ward ap­pro­pri­ately.

COLE BURSTON/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

A CFL news re­lease Wed­nes­day hinted at a con­flict be­tween Jef­frey Or­ridge, a U.S.-born sports mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive, and the CFL’s board of di­rec­tors.

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