CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge addresses guests during the annual “state of the league” speech, in Toronto on Friday, November 25, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Orridge set to depart as CFL commissioner

TORONTO — Jeffrey Orridge has some friendly advice for his successor: Stay the course.

Orridge will step down as CFL commissioner June 30 after just over two years on the job. The search for Orridge’s replacement continues but it’s unclear if the successful candidate will be in place when the 2017 regular season begins June 22.

Orridge feels the groundwork for success is already in place for the next CFL commissioner.

“I’d say the first thing is to analyse and appreciate the foundation that’s been laid and recognize all the things that are going right,” Orridge said Tuesday. ”The fact we rebranded a couple of years ago, we’ve now got greater brand recognition.

“Our television viewership is up from last year, our female demographic is up from last year, the 18-to-49 demo is up from last year so our focus on attracting and engaging that next generation of fans is working at the same time we’ve been able to keep the attention and engagement of our current fans. So look at the positive momentum and trends we’ve established right now, take stock of it and build on that innovation because status quo isn’t an option with the global marketplace being so competitive these days.”

The CFL announced Orridge’s departure — which was agreed upon mutually — in a statement April 12. No reason was given but Orridge reiterated Tuesday he and the board of governors had differing views regarding the league’s future.

“I’m not going to get into specifics or details about that but that’s essentially where we are,” Orridge said. “We made a decision it would be best to part ways.”

Orridge, a New York native, made headlines when he was hired in March 2015, becoming the first African American chief executive of a major North American sports league. A Harvard Law School graduate, Orridge arrived with an impressive resume, having served as executive director of sports and general manager of Olympics at CBC following stints with USA Basketball and Reebok International.

Mandated with boosting the CFL’s appeal to younger fans, Orridge launched partnerships with DraftKings Inc. — a daily fantasy sports site — and digital network Whistle Sports. The league also revamped its website — reportedly resulting in traffic doubling this year — and Orridge worked to improve social media engagement, often using his own Twitter account to promote league initiatives.

But even as commissioner, Orridge couldn’t act unilaterally. He reports to the CFL’s board of governors, which consists of 27 individuals — three representatives per team.

A big part of the job is creating consensus to get things done, which can be challenging given many board members are strong personalities who’ve succeeded outside of football. Coincidentally, Orridge’s replacement will be the CFL’s seventh commissioner since November 2000 while the NHL has had one commissioner over that span and major league baseball, the NBA and NFL have all had two.

It hasn’t always been clear sailing for Orridge.

During his first year on the job, he often struggled for answers when asked about league matters. Orridge also came under fire when the league got into a public spat with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport that resulted in the CFL not having drug testing for more than a year.

Ultimately, Orridge secured a new policy with the CFL Players’ Association that was implemented into the existing collective-bargaining agreement.

Last September, Orridge fined the Saskatchewan Roughriders $60,000 and deducted more than $26,000 from their 2016 salary cap for roster violations. The next month, he fined the Edmonton Eskimos $20,000 and head coach Jason Maas $15,000 after Maas and quarterback Mike Reilly refused to wear live microphones during a regular-season game.

Orridge drew criticism during Grey Cup week for denying the existence of a link between playing football and the development of the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. And in April, Orridge announced he wouldn’t register a contract for safety Justin Cox after he was released by Saskatchewan upon being charged in an alleged domestic dispute.

Cox was found not guilty of assault causing bodily harm Monday but Orridge announced Tuesday he wasn’t changing his stance.

Overall, Orridge believes the CFL has enjoyed “tremendous progress the last couple of years.”

“The litany of all the things we’ve been able to accomplish in just two short years, I think, is pretty astonishing,” he said. “Could there be more? Obviously and I think there will be more because the foundation has been laid for the league to perpetuate that.”

Orridge said Grey Cup and interacting with fans were the two most pleasurable aspects of his job.

“Just the other day, I had fans approach me on the street and call me by my first name so there’s a relationship, an intimacy, because we all have a passion for the same thing,” he said. “I knew one of the things that was so unique about this league was accessibility and being part of the community.

“There are so many (enjoyable) moments but I think probably my experience with the Grey Cup, both in Winnipeg and Toronto. As someone who immigrated to this country, the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to affect and be a part of something that is such a part of Canada’s history is truly special.”

Orridge said the next CFL commissioner should possess multiple qualities.

“I think you have to be a strategist, a deal-maker and change-maker,” he said. “When I say a strategist you’ve got to have a strategy and vision and so I was able to put a five-year strategy in place which we started to implement and the results have been very positive.

“When I say you’ve got to be a deal-maker, you’ve got have an eye towards putting things together, corporate relationships, relationships with other organizations because you’ve got to work with Football Canada, CCES, there’s a myriad of partners. You’ve got to be a change-maker as well because the world is constantly changing and you’ve got to be adaptable and adjustable in your ability to strike balance and co-ordination and be agile in your thinking.”

Orridge’s immediate plans are to take the summer off and spend it with his family, which includes watching his son Justin, 12, play rep baseball.

“I was gone a lot (while CFL commissioner) so I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my family,” Orridge said. “But I don’t have any regrets because that’s part of the job and part of the responsibility and part of the blessing I had to be able to affect peoples’ lives and impact people.

“There’s no blueprint for being a commissioner, there’s no degree you can go to school and receive that certifies you to be a commissioner so I’ve learned a lot on the job. All these things have gone to who I am and my preparation for the next thing in my life.”

As for what’s next, all Orridge would say is, “Let’s wait and see.”


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