Orridge to step down as CFL commissioner

TORONTO — Two years ago, the CFL trumpeted Jeffrey Orridge as the man who would “take the league to the next level.” Now, he is stepping down as commissioner over what he calls differing views on the future.

Orridge will remain on the job until June 30, after which the CFL will look to appoint its seventh commissioner since Michael Lysko took office Nov. 1, 2000.

No official reason was given for Orridge’s departure — which was agreed upon mutually — but in a statement Orridge said he and the league’s board of governors didn’t see eye-to-eye.

“It has been an honour to serve as CFL commissioner and help to prepare this historic league for the future by deepening our relationship with fans and sponsors, increasing its relevance with the next generation, and expanding our reach beyond Canada,” Orridge said. “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.”

Orridge was not available for interviews Wednesday, the league said.

A Harvard Law School graduate, Orridge was hired amid much fanfare in March 2015 when he became the first black chief executive of a major North American sports league. With a varied background that included serving as executive director of sports and general manager of Olympics at CBC and stints with USA Basketball and Reebok International, the CFL was banking heavily on Orridge knowing how to boost its appeal to a younger audience.

He unveiled a number of initiatives, including a partnership with the digital network Whistle Sports and a revamped website that reportedly resulted in traffic doubling this year. He also worked to improve social media engagement.

But it was also a steep learning curve. Orridge was born and raised in New York and while he said he watched Warren Moon play for the Edmonton Eskimos on TV in the 1980s, he initially didn’t appear to possess a deep understanding of the uniqueness of the CFL or its place in Canadian culture.

During his first year on the job, Orridge often struggled to find answers when asked about league matters by reporters. In 2015, Orridge came under fire for the CFL’s fallout with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport that led to the league not having drug testing for more than a year.

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

While he seemed more comfortable in his post last year, he still churned up controversy. In September, he fined the Saskatchewan Roughriders $60,000 and deducted more than $26,000 from their 2016 salary cap for roster violations.

The following 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 game against the Montreal Alouettes. All nine CFL teams had supported a directive from the league’s board of governors to participate in live mic games.

Then, during his state of the league address during Grey Cup week, Orridge drew widespread criticism for denying the existence of a link between playing football and the development of the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

League chairman Jim Lawson admitted the commissioner’s job is difficult but doesn’t feel the CFL erred in hiring Orridge.

“It (commissioner) is a very complex job in a league that has many complex issues and not always a huge amount of resources or investment capital to deal with,” Lawson said. “I guess I wear a different hat in the sense I think if this were a CEO role, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary but I think people in sports are conditioned to thinking commissioners are appointed for life.”

Like any other pro sports circuit, the CFL commissioner works for the board of governors and a big part of his job is creating consensus in order to get things done. But consider that since 2000, the NHL has had one commissioner while major league baseball, the NBA and NFL have all had two.

Lawson said the CFL doesn’t have any candidates in mind to succeed Orridge, but he’s hopeful a replacement can be found in time for the start of the 2017 season, which kicks off June 22.

The next commissioner will have some major issues to address, most notably negotiating a new CBA, which expires after the 2018 season. The league’s broadcast agreement with TSN, reportedly worth more than $40 million annually, runs through 2021.

“The person ahead needs the leadership-negotiation skills that can face some of these challenges that we know are on the frontier,” Lawson said. “I want to be clear, I’m not commenting on Jeffrey’s strengths or weaknesses as I say that.

“I think we need to say, ‘What do we want this person to do?’ We’ve got two, three, four big things on the horizon in the next two, three, four years here and someone is going to have to come in and get up to speed on these things and be able to handle them.”

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