Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Copeland the CFL’s man with a plan

Leading negotiations with players’ union

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He is Robin to Mark Cohon’s Batman. He is Bill Daly to Cohon’s Gary Bettman. And right now he might be the most important person in this country when it comes to determining whether there will be CFL games on the field this June.

Meet Michael Copeland.

Copeland, president and chief operating officer of the CFL, has taken the negotiating lead in collective bargaining with the players’ association and is charged with finding a deal that satisfies the players and can then be taken back to his board of directors and approved.

Copeland is quite literally caught between 300-pound linemen and a trio of business titans who have lost in the neighbourhood of $100 million during their time owning league franchises.

The players quite rightly want more money for the work they do. The owners want to stop losing money. Everybody has an angle and in this fight, it’s easy to see things from the perspective of both sides. Copeland, however, has to strategically see what’s best for the league today and as it moves forward. He needs to get the players on the field and he must keep his owners happy. Copeland is walking a tightrope with a nation of football fans watching.

Copeland agreed to a chat with the Free Press on Tuesday. Here are his views on CFL labour negotiations, which resume today in Toronto.

Free Press: What are you hoping to achieve when the meetings resume (today)?

Michael Copeland: (Today) we are hoping to have an open and honest conversation with the CFLPA executive about where our business is at. The fact is we are on the path towards a vision of stability and sustainability, but we’re not there yet. But we do have a plan in place to get there. With their partnership, we think we have a good chance of getting there. We want to hear again about their concerns and their objectives, and through that we’re hoping to get closer to some middle ground to reach an agreement. Because the one thing that we can agree on is that we want to be back out on the field, it’s important to the fans, and league, and a place where we could continue the momentum that we have had and we have to be thoughtful about it. We welcome the opportunity to have that open conversation and reach a deal that is fair and reasonable for both sides.

FP: Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s bid to buy the Argos and move them to a renovated BMO Field is off the table. What does this mean to the league?

MC: There are many different ways to address an issue, and we certainty understand that the Toronto market needs attention and focus. It’s an area at the league level that we have identified as being a strategic priority for us. The (MLSE) transaction potential on the BMO field and potential ownership was one that represented one avenue to help address this issue. There were positives about that scenario but it wasn’t the only way to address the issue. We were happy to consider that, but if that doesn’t present itself, then there are other ways to move forward. You can’t focus on the things you can’t do, you focus on the things you can do. We just need to look in another direction and we are very prepared in that regard to go down the other fork in road, as a means to making Toronto the engine of the CFL.

FP: Commissioner Mark Cohon has not been present at many of the meetings with the players to date in these talks. Why?

MC: Our commissioner was part of the initial discussions and was in the room with the union. It’s been a lot more "roll up the sleeves" discussions. The commissioner is very much part of our bargaining team here with the league, he’s very much in control of the situation. When negotiations get to a point where we think we are able to make some real decisions, it’s when the commissioner re-engages (the Free Press learned late Tuesday, Cohon would attend today’s meeting). This is the working groups that have been getting together trying to hone the discussions toward what we have been trying to do.

FP: A major stumbling block in these negotiations is the players’ wish to have salaries tied to revenue. The league is against this system. Why?

MC: A revenue-sharing model simply doesn’t work for the CFL. Often the example is used in other major professional sports leagues that have them in place. The reason they are able to do that is because their revenue significantly outweigh their costs. So when you define player compensation as a percentage of those revenues there’s something left to cover the operating costs and also provide a profit to the teams. In our case that just doesn’t happen. When you divide up our revenues you’re underwater with respect to our operating costs. Our league can’t function in that respect. What we’re trying to do is create a model of cost certainty based on a salary cap that is fair to the players, increased compensation, one that allows our teams to generate a profit. Generating a profit allows teams to invest in their city. What we have seen in the last several years, when the teams have had credible confidence, they will be able to afford to invest. They’ve made the decision to build a new stadium in Winnipeg, Hamilton, Ottawa, Regina announcing their investment as well as other investments that address the needs of our fans. We need to keep up. With what’s happening, if we’re not able to invest, we can’t do that.

We put ourselves in a position where we can credibly build this league. For the first time in history there is a vision for all of our teams to be profitable and stable. This not only benefits the clubs, but it benefits the players. I think we have shown in our offer that we recognize that the players have made a contribution to the success of the league. We understand the foundation element that they are. And that’s why we’re offering a compensation increase to them. We want them to share in our successes. We also have nine teams, and if one team has incremental revenue, then that will add money to player compensation. So that team will raise the cap for all teams so those teams that didn’t enjoy increased revenues now have increased costs.

The argument could be made that some teams should share their profits to help the have-nots. That won’t work because there isn’t enough profit.

Saskatchewan has a $40-million obligation to fund their stadium, Winnipeg has an $85-million loan. Profit is good for the league because it allows teams to invest and allows the league to build. We want to do this in a way that the players will benefit. We hope the players will understand that there is a deal that will make this league move forward.

FP: Can the CFL withstand a strike?

MC: I don’t know. I don’t want to find out. All of our focus is on continuing to play our schedule. We want to start on time, we want to have a full pre-season and regular schedule. The league can’t afford the wrong model. If the choice was between having a strike and having the wrong model, it’s a pick-your-poison situation, I know the wrong model will set the league backward. We need to make sure we get this right, to continue the momentum we’ve enjoyed. We’re on a pathway toward stability toward the entire league. We need to make sure we get the model right.

FP: The commissioner has said in his past few state-of-the-league addresses the league is healthy. The players point to this and say it’s time for them to get their share. Are they right?

MC: When you think of the term ‘healthy’, it means a realistic opportunity to build profitability, sustainability and stability for the league for the next 100 years. We have the opportunity to realize that. Not immediately, but over time. If we have the wrong model in place that takes away opportunity. We feel we’re healthy enough to give the players a nine per cent (raise) in compensation, we feel we can afford that. We feel our businesses are on a trajectory to continue to build themselves in a position where they’re stable. We accept the responsibility that we have to do that. Our teams accept the responsibility but they have to run their businesses well. They need to continue to push. Be aggressive and creative. They need to manage themselves properly. They accept that responsibility. If they do that, which I think they will, we will achieve that vision. If we have the wrong model in place it won’t matter what we do, because it won’t allow us to get to that position.

I think the commissioner is right, we put some things in place that will allow us to get there. We just have to make sure we use them properly.

FP: The players and teams want their piece of the increased TV money to be collected from the new broadcast agreement with TSN. The league wants to hold some of that money back for its own initiatives. How would the money be used?

MC: There are amounts in our 2014 budget that we have allocated for business development that we have not had the luxury to do. The one thing that increased revenues provide is some room to invest. At the league level, we want to invest as well. One area is the Toronto market. This market has been underdeveloped and under leveraged for decades, but we think the product is phenomenal. The Argos brand is historic and meaningful. We think with the right focus and attention, we can bring that back up to levels that were in the city back in the 70s. We should be a premiere sports property. We need to become more modern in how we manage our business related to ticketing systems and making sure that we are selling and managing the biggest part of our business. Digital as well. CFL website, mobile apps and other digital offerings that our fans are craving.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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