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Opportunity in tough times

|Written By Kelly Harris

Difficult economic times and the threat of greater competition does not seem to have the only solely-Canadian professional sports league shaking in its cleats.

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The Canadian Football League sees both those issues as opportunities to further cement the gate driven and affordable league’s hold on its market share. And, helping to pour that cement is league chief operating officer and general counsel Michael Copeland. As the only lawyer in the league’s head office, he draws upon his experience in business and knowledge of the law to help guide the CFL through what many consider tumultuous times.

“The legal training I have received both in school and practising has been indispensable to my ability to be a business manager,” Copeland says. “It really gives you a sense of organization, a sense of rigor and focus, that when you apply it to problem solving, whether it be legal or otherwise, it really is a significant advantage and one that has been critical to my success.” 

Copeland is a Brampton native and a graduate of the University of Western Ontario law and business schools, receiving his MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business. He entered business school after a brief stint at Harrison Elwood LLP, now Harrison Pensa LLP, in London, Ont., and Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP. Working as a commercial and corporate lawyer he realized he was more interested in what the companies were intending to do through transactions, than he was in the transactions themselves.

After business school he went to work with a pair of consulting groups, Deloitte Consulting in Sydney, Australia, and then the Boston Consulting Group, Inc. in Toronto, before moving on to a business development and marketing role with Molson Coors Brewing Co.

Copeland became chief operating officer for the CFL in 2006 and is responsible for the league’s strategic planning, finance, legal, football operations, and administrative functions. He has managed several key initiatives for the CFL, including the establishment of a new salary management system, the completion of a comprehensive new broadcast and digital rights agreement, the launch of instant replay, and a possible return of CFL football to Ottawa.

Copeland sees the CFL uniquely positioned to capitalize on tighter budgets in the face of more difficult economic times. He says the league’s image of players that fans can relate to and who live in the community they play in, may prove to be a benefit in hard times.

“When I talk about developing your own unique positioning, part of our positioning is affordability,” he says. “When we think of the CFL we define ourselves as affordable, authentic, and accessible, we represent an opportunity to bring your family out to a game for less than the price of a single ticket to some other major sports.”

Nowhere is that more important than in Toronto. Aside from the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Toronto FC, and the Raptors, there are countless non-sport venues competing for dwindling entertainment budgets.

“The real opportunity is to look at how you carve out a niche for yourself that resonates with all those groups, sponsors, community, media, and the fans, in such a way that you become relevant and interesting to people,” he says. “All of our clubs try to do that, Toronto requires a greater level of focus and they are doing some really great things in that regard now.”

Copeland also points out that CFL players make more than 5,000 community appearances a year and are easily accessible. And that isn’t by fluke, the collective bargaining agreement the players are governed by includes the understanding of the expectation that players will be good corporate citizens.

“It’s all part of our collective bargaining agreement, it really defines the relationship we have with players through the Canadian Football League Players Association,” Copeland says. “From a legal perspective, that is one of the most significant contracts that we have to manage.”

The CBA expires at the end of this CFL season and Copeland is already working with the players association on their next contract. While he is leading the team negotiating the next CBA, he isn’t alone. A trio of law firms, including Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP, Torys LLP, and Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP are working with the CFL and Copeland on a variety of issues.

“We rely on outside counsel on a variety of matters,” he says. “I’m the only lawyer currently employed with the league office, so it becomes necessary to have outside counsel help us on corporate matters, intellectual property, and employment matters.”

While he says only a quarter of his time is spent on legal matters, it seems hard to distinguish the difference between league or business issues, and legal ones. Whether he is helping to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the players union, working with front-office contracts, or responding to issues impacting the league, in the world of sport, law seems to transcend business.

One such place where sports, the law, and business are colliding is U.S. bankruptcy Judge Redfield T. Baum’s courtroom in Phoenix, Ariz. Baum has been tasked with deciding the fate of the economically embattled Phoenix Coyotes, sought after for a move to southern Ontario by BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie.

Unlike other North American sports leagues, the CFL has not made submissions to the bankruptcy hearings into the possible sale and relocation of the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton. That doesn’t mean the league isn’t interested in the hearings. Copeland says as a fan, greater access to hockey in Southern Ontario is an exciting prospect, but this issue is not simply about following a sport.

“That issue really speaks to the ability of sports leagues to govern themselves, and the extent to which their own governance documents takes precedence over other interests,” he says. “So we are keenly watching the outcome of that.”

If an economically-challenged franchise can be moved without league consent, that cuts to the heart of a sports league’s ability to market itself.

“Part of the mandate of the league office is to make sure that the league gets integrated and is capitalizing on all the opportunities it has before it,” Copeland says. “There is a strategy to that and you want to manage how that strategy unfolds, protecting your ability to do that is very important.

“It is also very interesting and exciting to think of sports properties re-energizing the southern Ontario market. I can really see how there is a really strong fan base . . . interested in seeing hockey come to southern Ontario. As a fan it’s exciting to think of that possibility as well.”

The CFL has to be prepared for either of the outcomes. While many would see another sports franchise as nothing more than competition for entertainment dollars, Copeland sees it as an opportunity.

“It could just really be a catalyst to the market, if it attracts corporate interest,” he says. “If it attracts resurgence to the city where you actually see businesses locating around something like that, it could really be something that creates a dynamic market in which the Tiger-Cats can thrive.”

Aside form the CFL, Copeland is a supporter of Special Olympics Canada and served as a director for the annual Special Olympics Festival since 2007. He is an avid runner who participated in the Ironman USA Triathlon at Lake Placid in 2006. He has competed in marathons in Chicago, Ottawa, and Toronto, and is a board member of Triathlon Canada.

Copeland and his wife have one daughter.