TORONTO - Southern Ontario remains a challenge for the CFL, but commissioner Mark Cohon says the league will provide financial assistance to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats next season while their new stadium is built.
Cohon said Friday during his annual state-of-the-league address three-quarters of the CFL's teams (six of eight) are breaking even or making money. Cohon didn't provide specifics but said Hamilton and the Toronto Argonauts remain works in progress.
"We know we have work here in southern Ontario," he said. "But I'm confident as we look to the future for a new television deal, the new stadium in Hamilton and the progress we're making here in Toronto that I'd say in a few years that number will increase.''
Last year, Toronto and Hamilton split $1 million from the CFL to grow grassroots football in southern Ontario.
Next month, venerable Ivor Wynne Stadium will be demolished and replaced with a 24,000-seat, state-of-the-art facility. The Ticats have reached an agreement to play most of next year's "home" games at the University of Guelph before moving into the new venue in 2014.
The yet-unnamed new stadium will stage the 2015 Pam An Games soccer competition. Cohon said CFL officials haven't decided how much they'll ante up but have agreed to help Hamilton owner Bob Young cover his costs in 2013.
"What we see now is a bright light at the end of what was once a long tunnel," Cohon said. "It's really coming to fruition with that new stadium . . . and new infrastructure and we want to support him in that effort.''
Cohon said staging the 100th Grey Cup has helped Toronto boost attendance, ticket revenue and its season-ticket base, the last by a whopping 50 per cent.
There's no new stadium on the horizon in Toronto, but the Argos have certainly created a buzz by reaching the historic 100th Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders. Now the trick remains capitalizing on that momentum after Sunday's big game.
"I think they have a real opportunity to do that," Cohon said. "I know in the last week they've already sold hundreds of new season tickets for next year and have the opportunity to become a strong fixture on the sports landscape in Toronto.''
The new Hamilton stadium is following a trend in the CFL. New facilities have been built or planned for Winnipeg, Regina and Ottawa, while existing venues in B.C., Edmonton and Montreal have been refurbished.
A common complaint among Argos fans is Rogers Centre, which seats about 46,000 for football, is too big and lacks atmosphere, especially with the roof closed. Cohon said ideally a 24,000-seat facility would work best in Toronto.
"They're trying to make the Rogers Centre work and you will see Sunday when that stadium is full it's exciting," Cohon said. "But longterm I think in terms of looking at professional sports teams you're looking at the size of the Ticats stadium, the size of the stadium in Ottawa, all around 24,000, that's perfect for CFL football . . . and I've talked about a strategy around potentially a new stadium around the Toronto region.''
Cohon provided a positive outlook for the CFL, stating attendance, television ratings, revenues and sponsorships all increased in 2012. He said TV viewership in Ontario of Argos and Ticats games shot up 20 and 11 per cent respectively this year.
Overall, viewership was up six per cent on TSN and four per cent on TSN and RDS combined. The average audience of 728,000 was up 27,000 per game over last year.
That's good news considering the CFL is entering into the final year of its TV deal. TSN and the league can extend the agreement before it expires, but if that doesn't happen it would allow CBC and Rogers Sportsnet, which reportedly both have an interest in CFL games, to enter the bidding.
"TSN has been a great partner,'' Cohon said. "But we also know we're well positioned because there are other entities out there that are extremely interested in our property.''
Cohon isn't in favour of re-opening the NFL option window. Earlier this year, the league eliminated the clause in the collective bargaining agreement allowing CFL option-year players to sign south of the border between Jan. 1 and Feb. 16.
Some CFL officials say that has made recruiting tougher because Americans are reluctant about committing for at least two years in Canada.
"The reason why we did it is because we didn't want to lose a lot of our star players going south," he said. "But I would say I have to be convinced to change that and I'm not convinced yet so I think there has to be a discussion on that.''
Despite his glowing report, Cohon said he still has plenty to do over the two-plus seasons that remain on the contract extension he signed last February. Cohon became CFL commissioner in 2007.
"There's a lot of challenges ahead from a television contract to making sure Ottawa opens strong . . . to thinking about Atlantic Canada or Quebec City for a 10th franchise," he said. "We've got to get new Canadians into the game, there's video games, fantasy gaming.
"I'm happy where I am, I'm challenged and I hope to be around for a while.''