A thousand times over the past five years, I have wanted to break free on my keyboard to share a few views on some of the topics debated here in this forum. Day-in and day-out you pour out your passion for the Canadian game and more than once in a while you let fly with your frustration on how our product is led and managed. I would have liked to provide an insider’s perspective, but in my former role, that type of candor might not have always resonated well with the group of nine, not that they weren’t prone to a little ‘unofficial slippage’ from time-to-time. There is one subject, right now, that I will weigh-in on.
In a few weeks from now ‘Commissioner Tom’ will share that one and only smile with the fans in Winnipeg for one last time and will leave his post at the CFL. That will not be a good day for this game. To be fair, like all Commissioners his tenure was not perfect and like all before him, his time was marked by the occasional controversy. But, unlike many before him who were hamstrung by the inability to climb over the hurdles of history and conflicting visions, this CFL Commissioner, charged-on. His record is one of fundamental achievements that have transported our League to a better place. If the Tom Wright story needs a headline, it would be “Wright changed the CFL to make it a better product for the fans?. Full stop. This Commissioner not only understands the game on the field, he understands the game’s fans and was single-focused in that regard, even if it resulted in uncomfortable change for some. He respects the fans inside and outside of our stadiums and spent many a chilly night sitting with the best of CFL fans on frosty aluminum bleachers, just to show as much of the rest of the country as he could, in prime time, what Canadian football was all about.
Tom Wright was the Commissioner that understood that the business of sports was changing and that to grow, in fact to survive, the CFL would have to lead the shift from simply a stadium producer to a multi-dimensional content provider. Lots of people talked about it. He acted on it. He was and is savvy enough to respect the importance of an emerging, but not yet committed audience, who were being introduced to the game through television, internet, satellite radio, wireless devices, fantasy pools, blogs, podcasts and the myriad of technologies coming down the pipe. During his time, more games were broadcast than ever before, in new mediums, with much better production, and at times when most Canadians would be home to watch. He did it confidently knowing that even the best electronic production could not and would not detract from a well-staged stadium experience.
Tom Wright’s leadership of the CFL was by no means perfect. Perhaps if he had a firmer hand with a historically well-intentioned, but cantankerous board, shifting influence from the few to the hands of the many, at the outset of his time at the helm, the story would be a different one. Perhaps if his faith in the human spirit to work together to build something bigger and better was not so strong, we might be in a different place.
Before he heads off to his next adventure, all of us need to reflect on the ‘Fans Commissioner’ and what he was able to achieve for the game and for us. This Commissioner will deliver to his successor an organization that is arguably at its most successful point in its long and storied history. This Commissioner presided over the transformation of the CFL from a game to a brand. This Commissioner reconnected the brand with its fans by building the largest and most successful broadcast footprint ever for the Canadian game. This Commissioner understood and valued the Canadian corporate community and brought them back to the game at levels of investment previously unattainable. This Commissioner brought forward and saw passed, at his own peril, a salary management system that just about every Commissioner prior, attempted to and failed. This Commissioner placed principles in front of longevity of office.
In any event, Tom Wright’s time as the 11th Commissioner will soon be history. This flag-waving Canadian will go home to his fabulous family deservedly proud of what he has achieved for all of us. We are all part of a great League, with great owners, great coaches, great athletes and great fans. On November 19th, when the Grey Cup is passed to the winning captain in Winnipeg, I hope all CFL fans will join together in raising a toast to Commissioner Tom. He deserves our thanks.
Huge Tom Wright Fan and
Former Chief Marketing Officer, CFL
Riverview, New Brunswick