Wright to Depart as CFL Commisioner

The CFL announced today that Commissioner Tom Wright will not seek to have his contract renewed which expires after the end of the 2006 season.

Most media and hopefully fans have seen through the spin the Chair of the Board of Governors attempts to place in the statement announcing this decision. To start, the announcement is addressed “Dear Fans,” while the tone is that Wright made this decision and the league must live with it and move forward. Meanwhile, media outlets are still reporting that Wright was informed in May his contract would not be renewed so today’s announcement appears to be no more than a face-saving move. The announcement goes on to praise Wright’s accomplishments, restate the strength of the league and announce that the CFL looks “… forward to accomplishing great things in the remainder of this season …” and thanks fans for their continued support.

Not only was this announcement posted on CFL.ca, but also every fan signed up for the CFL newsletter, CFL Insider, received a special email today with the announcement. All of this smacks of a Board with a guilty conscience; knowing that Wright was popular with both fans and the media they attempted to spin the story and reduce their blame. Based on media coverage like Sportsnet’s Primetime Sports with Bob McCown and fan comments on the TSN.ca story (24 to 1 in favour of Wright) the truth is visible to all.

Why would Wright effectively resign and let the Board get their way? Tom Wright is bigger than that and knows if he is not wanted, no need to put up a fight, he can fall on his sword and there will be plenty of better job opportunities for him. I wish him all the best and thank him for the great work he has done restoring some dignity to the CFL front office.

I expect more drama to play out this year around the commissioner’s office as Wright looks to secure ownership for Ottawa and the league searches for his successor. I strongly believe that Wright will have an announcement for a new owner in Ottawa by late August or September. The Board of Governors may not want this to be announced under Wright’s watch and with the way they have been known to act, they may be willing to risk scuttling the deal rather than allow an announcement to be made. If this occurs and the announcement is deferred until the Grey Cup, it will be interesting to see if it will not be leaked to the press. For total speculation, I expect the new owner of the Ottawa franchise to be an individual or group with local Ottawa connections, perhaps Eugene Melnyk or Dan Aykroyd.

Meanwhile the CFL search for a new commissioner probably should not take all year since the committee formed will be well represented by clubs that forced Wright out. It is likely that a short list or individual is already on these powerful clubs radar, someone they wish to install in a puppet regime. In keeping with tradition, they may want to wait until the Grey Cup for the successor’s announcement. This would be a mistake. There is no advantage to unveiling the new commissioner at the Grey Cup; in fact it takes away from what should be fan and media focus, which is the game. Instead, the announcement should be made as early as possible and the successor should start shadowing Tom Wright before the season is completed.

Of the bad things that can result from Wright’s departure, a drop in sponsor agreements is the most likely. While other CFL commissioners have seen the increased popularity of the CFL in attendance and TV ratings, Wright has brought in sponsor revenue that dwarves what was being pulled in pre-2002. These sponsors were brought in not only by the CFL’s increasing popularity but by their relationship with Wright and the knowledge, stability and presence, he brought. Therefore it is realistic to think that when these agreements expire that the desire to renew may not be as strong as if Wright was still there.

An extreme possibility for worse case scenario would be that the commissioner position not be filled and a governor or owner handles the duties. This was the case after Michael Lysko was fired in 2002 and David Braley took over the role of the commissioner’s office. During this time Braley stated he did not see why the CFL needed a commissioner. Filling in for a departed commissioner has also occurred previously during search periods. Let this post stand as a warning to the Governors. If this does happen, do not expect any fan or media sympathy for a league that would operate under such conditions.

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