Canadian starters, Argos ownership hot topics of discussion for CFL commissioner

CALGARY — CFL commissioner Mark Cohon was forced on the defensive Friday.

CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon speaks to the media during the Commissioner's State of our League Address on Friday in Calgary. The Montreal Alouettes take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders this Sunday in the 97th Grey Cup.

CALGARY — CFL commissioner Mark Cohon was forced on the defensive Friday.

The usually outgoing Cohon was evasive and repeatedly avoided discussing the thorny issue of how many Canadian-born players CFL teams must start during his annual state-of-the-league address. It’s been a hot topic of discussion the past month after The Canadian Press reported the league was looking to reduce the minimum number from seven to four in contract talks with the CFL Players’ Association.

“Any position I say has to do with our negotiations and I’m the spokesperson for this league,” said Cohon. “So I will tell you that we understand the importance of Canadians in this league.”

The present deal expires just before the start of 2010 training camps. It calls for clubs to carry a minimum of 20 Canadians, 19 non-imports and three quarterbacks on the active roster, leaving at least seven Canucks to be starters.

The issue is a very sensitive one for both players and fans alike and has become a lightning rod for lively debate. But that wasn’t the case Friday as on seven separate occasions when asked about it Cohon simply repeated his prior statement, adding he couldn’t comment further as a sign of respect for the negotiations process between the CFL and CFL Players’ Association.

Cohon was at least a bit more forthcoming when asked about the Toronto Argonauts ownership issue, saying the league wants to know the intentions of co-owners Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon sooner rather than later. Sokolowski and Cynamon are kicking around the idea of selling the franchise they rescued from the jaws of bankruptcy six years ago reportedly have some interest in buying the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes.

“I want to be clear,” Cohon said, “I want to have a resolution on their position in the coming weeks.”

It’s been reported that B.C. Lions owner David Braley could have an interest in purchasing the Argos. In June, it was revealed Braley fronted Sokolowski and Cynamon half the $2-million franchise fee to purchase the Argos out of bankruptcy in 2003, and continued to lend the team money.

If Braley purchased the Argos, who posted a CFL-worst 3-15 record and missed the playoffs for a second straight year, while still owning the Lions the optics could potentially be embarrassing for the CFL. Not only would one man own 25 per cent of the league, it would also create an obvious conflict-of-interest situation.

Amazingly, there’s nothing in the CFL’s constitution preventing one person from owning two different teams. But Cohon said recent constitutional amendments put in place mean the commissioner must be informed of any financial transactions made between owners, thus creating transparency.

“Fans need to understand, you guys need to understand any transaction that happens between clubs comes through the commissioner’s office,” Cohon said. “We look at every transaction and we will hold those to the highest scrutiny.”

However, a published report Friday suggested Cynamon and Sokolowski were leaning towards continuing to own the Argos but were looking at leaving Rogers Centre and possibly playing their home games at BMO Field, the home of Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. While moving to an outdoor venue would be enticing, there are logistical problems as BMO Field does not fit a regulation CFL field.

The report said the Argos owners would be willing to consider playing on a shorter field or one with reduced end zones.

“This is a very recent development,” Cohon said. “Our football operations people have not had an opportunity to go in and look at this in thorough detail.

“On the other hand, the integrity of our game and our field is critically important and those things will be addressed in the coming weeks.”

Cohon praised the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for their amazing turnaround in ’09, finishing second in the East Division and hosting their first home playoff game since 2001 after consecutive 3-15 campaigns. But Cohon said the Ticats continue to lose money and helping the southern Ontario franchises remains a priority for the CFL.

Still, Cohon said overall the CFL is presently in stable condition as it continues to weather the current recession. Attendance dropped 1.5 per cent in 2009 but Cohon added the league drew more than two million fans for the eighth straight season.

The good news, though, was the league’s TV ratings on both TSN and RDS — the cable network’s French-speaking affiliate — continue to be very strong. Cohon said the league experienced a four per cent increase in merchandise sales in 2009 and next year will hold a regular-season game in Moncton and continues to progress in its return to Ottawa in time for the 2013 season.

However, not all was good for the CFL.

Cohon admitted the league experienced a double-digit decrease in its corporate partnerships this season and that scoring in the usually high-flying Canadian game dropped almost nine per cent this year.

Cohon was also disappointed at what he felt was a lack of discipline — and sometimes respect — on the field as penalties were on the rise in 2009, with unnecessary roughness calls up a whopping 25 per cent.

“We often found ourselves in the league office contemplating discipline for our players and in one case an entire team that disrespected its opponent and on occasion coaches who failed to treat officials or you, our media, the way you deserved to be treated,” Cohon said. “This will be addressed in the off-season and I’m confident in 2010 there will be marked improvement.

“At the same time, we are sober about our work ahead on key issues such as Toronto and our collective bargaining agreement but are optimistic that with hard work we can continue to build on the successes we’ve had to date.”

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