Commissioner Mark Cohon Continues to Grow the CFL
"Canada's League" in extremely good shape, thanks to Jewish Commish.
From the reemergence of the Toronto Argonauts to the continued dominance of the Montreal Alouettes, excitement continues to flow in the Canadian Football League as it proceeds to its seventh week of action this season. Behind the success of this entertaining, yet local league is Mark Cohon, the league’s 12th commissioner and a very passionate Canadian.
Born in Chicago, Cohon moved to Toronto, Ontario when he was just two years old. Growing up, he and his family attended Temple Holy Blossom synagogue where Cohon had his Bar Mitzvah. Cohon’s father, George is the founder of McDonald’s of Canada and Russia, and is also an honourary chairman of the board of Israeli bonds.
Growing up, the commissioner’s father was a huge inspiration to him, Cohon told Shalom Life. “My parents and my grandparents gave me a proud sense of religion and heritage and also helped make sure to not be too insular. If you look at my parents, it’s a lot of what they had to do in the greater community and that’s from being strong and rooted of who you are as a person.”
Prior to his big job with the CFL, Cohon worked for both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and for Major League Baseball (MLB). Cohon used to run an NBA office in Europe, where part of his job was to market the league in Israel. Going to the country four to five times a year in the mid-‘90s was very enjoyable, according to Cohon.
“I am very proud of my heritage,” he said. “I also went to Israel many times with my family. My father was the head of Israeli bonds for 30 years and very philanthropic towards Jewish causes. I have a real proud sense of identity of what it means to be Jewish, not just from a religious standpoint but more from a secular and value standpoint of what it means to raise your family.”
For Cohon, who is also chairman of the Ontario Science Centre, Canadian football has always been a large part of his life, which is why he accepted the job as commissioner in 2007. “I love the game and I love the league. Most of my career was outside of Canada, so when [the CFL] approached me, I thought, in my own way, this was an opportunity to serve the country because the CFL is such a big part of the culture of Canada. I thought that it was a great league but in many was it was underperforming a little. I thought that it was an opportunity to just bring a little more of the passion back to the league and that’s what we’ve been able to do in the last four years.”
Returning passion to a league that many consider secondary to the NFL is not easy. “There will always be people who are naysayers,” says Cohon. “But the fact of the matter is 14 million Canadians tuned in to watch the Grey Cup last year. Forty-three per cent of the country tuned in. In 2009, it was the most watched television broadcast [in Canada]. I think our numbers speak to our success.”
In fact, there is no reason why the CFL and the NFL cannot co-exist, says the commish. “When looking at football fans, we’re finding that probably half of CFL fans are also fans of the NFL. What we want is for people to love football. Our brand of football is a little bit different, a little more wide open, you have more scoring. We’re very proud of our game, so I don’t compare ourselves to the NFL. If you’re a fan of football, that’s fine with me.” The CFL has even struck a deal with the NFL Network this year, as the station will carry 14 CFL games. “One of the things we want to do is make sure we’re attracting talent from the United States. Half of our rosters are made up of American players so we want to attract talent from the States.”
Cohon has also been focused on getting consistent television and attendance ratings up across the country. He feels that the continued success in this area is the result of excellent marketing. “We’ve got close to $1 billion in stadium projects happening now. We’ve got strong TV ratings as we’ve got a great deal with TSN. They’re getting close to averaging 1 million viewers per game. Our Grey Cups have become phenomenal successes- we sold out the Grey Cup this year five and a half months in advance, with over 60,000 people. Ultimately, I think more than anything, it’s about a sense of pride of what this league means to the country…I view hockey as Canada’s game but I view the CFL as Canada’s league.”
Due to Canada’s multicultural demographic, a major target audience of the CFL are immigrants, to whom Cohon is eager to introduce the game. “If you go to a lot of our stadiums, you actually see a very diverse population. I think you make it affordable and reach out to the different communities to say ‘This is what it is to be Canadian and come aboard.’”
In the future, the CFL could see further expansion beyond eight teams. “We’re bringing a team back to the nation’s capital in Ottawa, hopefully by 2013,” said Cohon, who says he also welcomes the potential of an Ottawa soccer team playing alongside this new franchise. He added that the CFL is also testing the Maritimes later this season. “We have a first regular season game of a professional league happening in Moncton this year between the Argos and the Eskimos. We sold that out in 32 hours. One game doesn’t make a season but I think we really want to test that market place on an ongoing basis and see where we go from there.”
Like any other sports league, the most important fans to reach out to are the children. “Being on TSN allows us to do that. Investing in amateur football is what we’re doing, getting kids playing the game. Eventually, if we can get a video game, I think that is very important. We see a growing audience every year on TSN of young people watching the game and that’s making a difference.”
When asked how he incorporates his Jewish identity into his job, Cohon said that he “celebrates” it. “More than anything there are values that I grew up with. I have the opportunity in this role to meet with the Prime Minister and meet with the ball boys. I think from my own Jewish identity, [it’s important] to treat everyone the same. I think that’s one of the greater tendencies of our religion.”