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Volume 21 No. 2
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One football league’s fan engagement, another’s sensitivity

We always like to hear about good, new ideas, and one of the more novel ones came recently in Toronto around the 100th Grey Cup. The concept came from Commissioner Mark Cohon, whom many of you may know from his history at the NBA, MLB and AudienceView ticketing/technology company. Mark has done a very nice job in leading the eight-team football league, and his concept of getting fans closer to the CFL’s championship hardware may be one we see replicated in the U.S.

In an attempt to create a new tradition, the league invited fans to join a parade and take turns carrying the cup from the University of Toronto’s football stadium to the game at the Rogers Centre about 2 1/2 miles away. Cohon started the relay and handed off the trophy to a 14-year-old boy and the parade was on. We have seen other forms of this communal atmosphere around games — the “March to the Match” in Seattle for the Sounders has been a big cultural hit. But this is one of the few instances I can recall where the championship hardware was placed in the hands of the fans.

Fans embraced the opportunity to carry the Grey Cup to the stadium ahead of the 100th CFL title game.
Toronto media reported that each participant carried the trophy up to 50 feet and that they were prevented from putting the cup over their heads. About 300 people carried the trophy and, in my favorite line, “despite the excitement, and some signs of inebriation, the cup made it to the Rogers Centre without hitting the ground once.”

I caught up with Cohon the next day. He was thrilled over the reception and noted it was all part of a two-year plan to celebrate the 100th Grey Cup. The key activation was a 2,550-mile train tour through Canada — the Grey Cup 100 Train Tour presented by Rona, which stopped in more than 100 communities. “Along the way fans touched it, kissed it and photographed it,” Cohon said. “They revere it, and we thought the best way to make the final journey into the Rogers Centre would be to allow the fans to carry it. It was well worth the risk because the outpouring of emotion from our fans was overwhelming.”

Cohon’s overall takeaway and feeling is that sport needs to continue to get closer to community. “I fundamentally believe that professional sports need to be closer to their fans through grassroots initiatives that are open and honest,” he said. “Trust them.” This came after his fourth State of the League Address, where 400 CFL fans grilled him for an hour about the league. “It was one of the highlights of my Grey Cup week,” he said.

> FOLLOWING THE PLOT: The film “Silver Linings Playbook” offers both the good and the ugly sides of the NFL’s place in today’s culture. It tells the story of Pat Solatano, a bipolar man from Philadelphia (played by Bradley Cooper) who has spent the last eight months in a mental hospital and returns home to live with his parents. The parents’ life, especially that of his father, Pat Sr. (played by Robert De Niro), revolves passionately around the Philadelphia Eagles.

The movie touches on all the positive pulls of fandom — bringing family closer together, bonding time, rituals and superstitions, and great joy. The story also hits on the more unseemly aspects, not just in the NFL, of stadium violence (Pat Sr. is banned from Lincoln Financial Field for too many fights) and gambling (Pat Sr. is a part-time bookie). Excessive drinking during a tailgate leads to ethnic insults and a violent brawl before the game.

Followers of the game will be able to relate to these plot lines. The question is how the NFL will react to this, as the movie is sure to be on many year-end lists and already has Oscar buzz. Attention around the film’s themes will only increase, and the movie is likely to be a hit. So does the league embrace its portrayal of NFL die-hards or ignore it?
An early line into the league’s thinking could be gleaned when it pulled a planned promotional interview with Cooper that was scheduled with NFL Network’s Rich Eisen on the host’s Thanksgiving special. An NFL media spokesperson told the New York Post, “The segment was pulled because the movie included content related to gambling on NFL games.”

I’m going to keep an eye on whether the league distances itself from this film, including whether it discourages partners or teams from advertising the film on-air during games or in-venue.

> SALUTING STERANKA: Finally, a personal tip of the cap to outgoing PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka, whom I have always admired for his love of the sport and attention to his craft. He has been a tireless advocate for both PGA professionals and the golf courses where they work. He presided over the PGA during the recession, which of course made his task far more difficult and led to a downturn in the number of rounds played — a killer for his PGA pros and their courses. But the PGA responded with grassroots initiatives to drive rounds back up and grow the relevance of the game in the U.S.

I also liked Joe’s willingness to embrace alternative and experimental ideas for golfers — sizes of the holes, shortening the course — which can be rare in a sport so rooted in tradition.

Joe, who is being succeeded by a 2009 Forty Under 40 winner, the talented Pete Bevacqua, is not leaving the scene totally. As he told us earlier this year, “I can’t imagine this was my last job. I haven’t taken two weeks off, much less two months off. But I am going to take the next few months and work on my short game. I look forward to joining a private club, play some member-guests, take some special trips with [wife] Joann.” All of which is well-deserved for an all-around solid individual who loves the sport he served.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.