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CFL commissioner Mark Cohon issues open letter to people of Ottawa

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TORONTO - CFL commissioner Mark Cohon wants to set the record straight.

Cohon issued an open letter to the people of Ottawa on Thursday looking to share some facts about the league as well as clear up misinformation he says has come up as two local groups - one looking to land an MLS club, the other a CFL expansion franchise - compete to build a new stadium in the Canadian capital.

Eugene Melnyk, owner of the NHL's Ottawa Senators, heads up the team that's received a conditional MLS franchise, while a group of local businessmen that includes Ottawa 67's owner Jeff Hunt has received a conditional CFL expansion club.

The condition for both groups is being able to secure a place to play.

Hunt's group is looking to renovate Frank Clair Stadium as part of a redevelopment of Lansdowne Park. Melnyk is proposing to build a new 20,000-seat soccer venue in nearby Kanata.

Ottawa civic officials are weighing both offers and will ultimately decide which one to follow through with.

But what has drawn Cohon's ire are statements from Melnyk suggesting a CFL franchise might not remain in Ottawa 25 years from now. Cohon also says claims it would take as many as six Grey Cup games to draw the estimated $50-$60 million an MLS team would bring to the city's economy annually are simply untrue.

"Canadian football's signature event - the Grey Cup - has endured two World Wars, the Great Depression, and more than a few cynics who have predicted its demise only to be proven emphatically wrong time and again by Canadians," Cohon wrote. "Last year's Grey Cup was played in front of 66,308 fans in Montreal, the second-largest live audience in its history, which spans 96 Grey Cup games.

"It was watched on TSN and RDS television by 3.65 million Canadians. The suggestion that the Grey Cup and Canadian football have somehow run their course is clearly not based on fact."

Cohon was just as bullish regarding how much revenue the Grey Cup games generate.

"According to a news release issued July 3, 2008 by the Canadian Sports Tourism Alliance, the total economic activity (GDP) generated by the 2007 Grey Cup in Toronto was more than $80.1 million throughout the province, with $52.9 million occurring in Toronto," Cohon wrote. "The Canadian Sports Tourism Alliance reported that these expenditures generated more than $25.6 million in wages and salaries, and supported nearly 624 jobs, of which 475 occurred in Toronto.

"These are their numbers, not the CFL's."

Melnyk did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment Thursday.

The Ottawa situation will be discussed by CFL governors at the league's annual congress next month in Hamilton.

The Hunt group is attempting to bring a third CFL franchise to Ottawa. The former Rough Riders club folded after the '96 season while the Renegades returned under new ownership in 2002 but was suspended by the league four years later.

However, Cohon says the heavy hitters with the current Ottawa CFL group - Hunt and businessmen Bill Shenkman, Roger Greenberg and John Ruddy - are not only well funded, but well rooted within the Ottawa community.

"In that sense, they are an excellent match for a city that is bigger, more dynamic, and more successful than it was 20 years ago, yet still has a deep respect and affection for its roots and traditions," Cohon said.

The commissioner also dispelled talk that a CFL team and MLS franchise couldn't co-exist in the same stadium.

"The CFL has no objection to the proposed facility being shared with other major tenants, soccer or otherwise, as this is done in many of our existing stadiums already," he said. "A CFL team plays 10 or 11 home dates, excluding Grey Cups, which are traditionally rotated among our teams.

"That means a Grey Cup in Ottawa approximately every eight years or so."

And, Cohon added, the CFL's fan base remains very strong and stable.

"In 2008, we averaged 28,914 fans per regular season game," he said. "By comparison, Toronto's BMO Field, home to Toronto FC of the MLS, seats 21,000 people.

"Our total regular season attendance last year exceeded two million fans for the seventh straight season. (In case you're wondering, this matches our attendance in what some consider the CFL's glory years, 1976 to 1982.)."

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