Nearly four decades before becoming the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) executive director of sports and general manager responsible for the Olympics, New York-born Jeffrey Orridge came to Canada with his parents to visit family members in the Greater Toronto Area.
He later spent considerable time in Toronto in the early 1990s while employed with USA Basketball.
“I got a chance to get a feel for this city back then and really engage the people who were warm and welcoming,” Orridge told Share in an interview in August 2012. “I also found this to be a clean city and the crime rate was relatively low given its size. I have lived in many different places in the U.S., but there is a real sense of community here. That’s why I felt comfortable moving my family here and I thought it was a viable option when I was looking at job opportunities.”
Soon to become a Canadian citizen, Orridge was unveiled as the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) 13th commissioner last week.
It was a historic moment, as he’s the first Black to hold the position among North America’s five sports organizations.
“I am fully cognizant of that and fully embrace it,” said 54-year-old Orridge. “I am very proud of where I have come from, my background, my heritage. It’s a remarkable thing that we have come this far, but it’s really been on the shoulders of everybody else who has come before me.”
The married father of two young children is the son of a Jamaican-born dad who died a few years ago and a 90-year-old American mother – a registered nurse and retired social worker – who lives in New York.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, Orridge – who oversaw rights acquisitions, partnership management, revenue initiatives and program execution involving marquee sports properties and digital opportunities at the CBC – is well qualified for his new role.
Prior to moving to Canada with his family eight years ago, Orridge was USA Basketball’s head of legal and business affairs, Reebok’s director of global sports marketing, Warner Brothers Consumer Products’ sports licensing director and vice-president of worldwide licensing & entertainment and new business development with Mattel Inc.
He also served as chief operating officer and head of global business development for the Toronto-based Right to Play International before joining the CBC in April 2011.
“I have been living and breathing sport most of my life,” said Orridge, who handed in his resignation to CBC just hours before he was unveiled as the league’s new commissioner. “I actually believe it’s because of my international background and various experiences that I recognize how truly unique and important this league is to Canadians and Canada. The CFL teams bring communities together and the Grey Cup certainly unites a nation. The power of sport is truly embodied in the CFL.”
A spectator at the last three Grey Cups, Orridge said he has been a fan of the league for decades.
“It’s not just because of how exciting the game is or how amazing the athletes that play the game are,” he said. “It’s really, to me, what the CFL represents which is Canada. Just like Canada, the CFL is open, it is energizing, it’s welcoming, it is fair and it’s a true meritocracy where if you are qualified, you would play. If you are capable, you could play any position and you could compete. That’s why I have been a fan of the CFL for decades. I love our game, I love the positive power of sport, I love this country and I couldn’t be more proud and also be more humble to be part of something that is special as the CFL.
“I was interested in the CFL long before it had an interest in me. When I was with the CBC and probably in the first three or four months on the job running CBC Sports, the CFL was an incredibly intriguing and attractive property for us and should the rights had become available, we certainly would have gone after it because of everything that it brings. It’s truly uniquely Canadian and belongs to the public.”
Orridge, who graduated cum laude from Amherst College, said he’s excited to be joining a venerable organization and to be associated with an iconic brand.
Though saddled with financial challenges, the league – officially founded in 1958 even though most of the teams predate the CFL’s formation – is a unique part of Canadian sports culture.
“This is a tremendous brand and a growing business,” said Orridge, who structured a multi-year sub-licensing agreement to preserve and amplify the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast and brand. “The league’s rich tradition, fantastic fans, amazing athletes and phenomenal partners really have us poised to not only have long-term sustainability, but unprecedented growth in the future. I grew up running track, playing basketball, baseball and football and having a dream of becoming a professional athlete. It didn’t materialize. My dream job has actually happened and I can’t imagine a better job for me right now.
“I mean all the things I have done in my career up until this point, the marketing, the licensing, the contract negotiations and my ability to work with clients, all those things actually come to bear on this job. I think my love of sport, my love of the power of sport, my love of this game and my love of this country all make for an incredible amalgam of opportunity for me and something I can’t help to be excited for.
“People trust me and I have been able to broaden reach and expand relationships and certainly drive revenue for organizations and create even greater relevance for whatever brand or organization I have been involved in. I think that is my goal here as well. Reach, relevance and relationships all lead to revenue and to a fan-first focus.”
Orridge, who starts his new job on April 29, was the league board of governors’ unanimous choice to replace Mark Cohon, who stepped down last January after serving two terms.
“He’s going to be the perfect person, I think, to work with our players, our fans and the league,” said board of governors chair, Jim Lawson. “He has the skill set to take this league to the next level.”
In contrast to the National Football League (NFL), the CFL has led the way most of the time in providing opportunities to Black quarterbacks, coaches and managers.
Undrafted, Warren Moon won five Grey Cups in six seasons and was among a plethora of quality Black quarterbacks that shone in the CFL long before Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to make a Super Bowl appearance in 1988.
Willie Wood was appointed the first Black head coach in 1980, nine years before Art Shell became the NFL’s first Black head coach and Roy Shivers was named the league’s first Black manager in December 1999. Ozzie Newsome was the first African-American to occupy that position in the NFL 24 years ago.
Robert “Stonewall” Jackson, a railway porter, was the CFL’s first Black player when he turned out for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1930.