Wednesday, June 1, 2011

2012 Grey Cup press conference raises interest, questions

In a move straight from the files of the Department of Advance Planning, the CFL held a press conference Monday not about November's Grey Cup in Vancouver, but rather on the following Grey Cup in Toronto in November 2012. Of course, that Toronto edition isn't going to be your typical Grey Cup, as it will mark the 100th presentation of the storied trophy, and it's already received plenty of discussion. It makes sense to start talking about some of what will happen around that Grey Cup, and it particularly makes sense to unveil specific new elements of the festival that have already been decided upon, such as a longer festival than normal (starting on the Friday before Grey Cup Week), "an interactive family zone" in Yonge-Dundas Square, a football film festival and plans for a street festival on John Street and a tailgate party on Bremner Boulevard. However, the conference also sparked plenty of questions and controversies, and not all of them have seen answers so far.

One particularly jarring comment came from festival chairman and CEO Chris Rudge (seen at right with the Grey Cup at a 2010 press conference), who the FAN 590's Greg Brady reported as saying that this Grey Cup would be the "greatest sports event in Toronto history." It's understandable that Rudge is trying to hype this event up, as that's part of his job description. It's also understandable that he'd make such a grandiose claim; keep in mind that his most recent background is as the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee from 2003 to 2010, and the Olympics is high on the list of organizations fueled by hype. However, making those kind of claims this far in advance seems a bit much, especially in a city that's seen plenty of memorable sports moments over the years. The 100th Grey Cup may turn out to be one of the best sports events Toronto has ever hosted, but claiming that it's going to be the best event ever a year and a half before it happens is the sort of move that's only going to invite scorn from those who aren't CFL fans.

Speaking of those who aren't necessarily primarily CFL fans, one notable presence at the press conference was that of Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Of course, the municipal government has an important role in any Grey Cup, and this wasn't Ford's first appearance at a CFL event. He's shown up at some Argonauts' games before, was at Adriano Belli's retirement presser, and was even claimed as a fan by Argonauts' president Bob Nicholson in response to a question on the team's season preview conference call a few weeks back.

"Rob's been a great supporter," Nicolson said. "He loves the game of football. First and foremost, he loves the CFL brand."

As The Toronto Sun's Bill Lankhof pointed out in a scathing piece published before the press conference Monday morning, though, that isn't necessarily an accurate statement. Here are some of the highlights of that piece:

But after chairman and chief executive officer of the 2012 Grey Cup Festival, Chris Rudge, is told by our mayor how wonderful it is to have this great event in Toronto, after he hears how much the Fords love football and how they grew up admiring the Argonauts, after the camera lights turn off and the last handshake, Rudge might want to take stock of where Toronto's political leadership really stands.

There is reason for suspicion that while Rob Ford is an obvious football junkie, if the Argonauts give him a team jersey it should read "Arnold" on the back--as in Benedict.

Lankhof is referencing the oft-mentioned desire Ford and his brother Doug have shown to bring the NFL to Toronto. Even though many of their actions along those lines have gone spectacularly awry, the Fords' activism on the NFL front is certainly troubling for the CFL and the Argonauts. Ford even mentioned it at this press conference, probably in response to a question, but his response wasn't exactly reassuring. Mark Masters reported that Ford said the Argos would survive if the NFL came to Toronto. That may be true, but they'd certainly face notable issues on the media coverage, sponsorship and attendance fronts, as would the CFL as a whole (particularly on the first two). Ford's comments appear to showcase that either he still doesn't really understand what a NFL team in Toronto would do to the CFL, or he's fully aware but is more interested in bringing the NFL north than preserving Canadian football. Then again, the Fords aren't known for their taste in football leagues...

Moving on from one branch of government to another, it's worth noting that the discussion around the 2012 Grey Cup actually started last fall thanks to the CFL's decision to lobby the federal government for $12 million in funding for Grey Cup Festival events. They were eventually promised $5 million in the March federal budget for 2011-12 that didn't pass the House of Commons, but will likely get that money in the June budget, as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told The Globe and Mail "Basically this is the March 22 budget with a couple of additions from the platform." However, that money was planned to be used for cross-country festival events. There doesn't appear to have been any mention of those at today's conference, so perhaps that's reliant on actually getting that funding approved in the new federal budget, which would be a logical move. (It's also worth noting that said funding is going to be a small part of the overall festival budget, which is likely to run between $20 and $30 million. However, Rudge also said the federal government may boost funding over that $5 million mark.)

Another comment that caused a stir was CFL commissioner Mark Cohon's mention that the Grey Cup trophy itself would "undergo a redesign" following the 2012 game. That sparked plenty of angry reaction on Twitter and elsewhere, as the Grey Cup itself is one of the most important and historic symbols of Canadian football, but it turned out to be rather a tempest in a teapot. CFL director of communications Jamie Dykstra later clarified that the redesign won't affect the cup itself (at the top of the trophy), but will expand the base to make room for more names. Cohon later told Masters "it won't be a drastic change".

A more positive and less controversial comment was what Rudge said to Chris Zelkovich of The Toronto Star; the Vanier Cup will likely be paired with the Grey Cup again in 2012. "It's not signed yet, but it's 95% certain," Rudge said. That's a great move if it happens; the Vanier-Grey Cup pairing in Toronto in 2007 was a tremendous highlight for both the CIS and the CFL, and this year's pairing of the two in Vancouver should work well. Combining the two brings much more interest to the CIS game, as many fans and media members follow or cover both leagues, but opt to go to the Grey Cup instead of the Vanier. With both in the same location and spread out over a weekend, fans of both the CIS and CFL brands can get together and expose each other to the benefits of both products.

As Monday's conference showed, the 2012 Grey Cup is certainly going to be a notable event. Unlike Rudge, the position from this corner is that it's too early to say whether it will be the "greatest sports event in Toronto history" or not, but it certainly has plenty of potential. There are still lots of questions to address, but there's time, as we've got two whole seasons and a Grey Cup to get through before Toronto in 2012. It's not too early to start building the excitement, though, and hopefully that's what the lasting effect of this conference will be.

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