11/27/2014 11:51 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST

CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon says small stadiums work better

Smaller, more intimate stadiums that can seat 25,000 people are going to become the norm in the CFL moving forward, the outgoing commissioner of the league says.

That was one of the takeaways of a wide-ranging interview that the CBC's Amanda Lang did with outgoing CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon. (The entire interview can be watched on Thursday night's episode of The Exchange with Amanda Lang, and will be posted online.)

"Most stadiums are getting smaller," Cohon said. "So the 24,000- to 25,000-seat for the CFL, I think, is perfect." 

Cohon sat down with Lang as his seven-year term as CFL commissioner comes to an end, which will officially come on Sunday when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats face the Calgary Stampeders for the 102nd Grey Cup in Vancouver's B.C. Place.

In many pro sports, the trend has been toward huge monster-stadiums that cram more and more paying customers into the seats. The NFL's Dallas Cowboys recently built stadium can hold up to 105,000 people. Even some CFL stadiums, such as those in Vancouver and Toronto, can comfortably hold more than 50,000 people.

But a huge — and half-empty — building isn't the ideal venue for what the league is trying to accomplish with its fans, Cohon said. "I think we kind of stumbled on it," he said, "we we were pretty lucky [that] we saw the scenario in Montreal years and years before my time."

That's a reference to the Montreal Alouettes' successful experiment in the 1990s, when the team had some modest successes but very poor attendance in the cavernous 66,000-seat Olympic Stadium. But in 1997, the team moved home games to the smaller and more intimate McGill stadium, which holds 25,000, and the in-game experience turned completely around.

Less than 20 years — and three Grey Cups — later, the Alouettes are a hot ticket. "You can expand it for the Grey Cup to up to about 40,000 but if you look at Ottawa, you look at Hamilton ... [25,000 is] the perfect spot for us."

Cohon said smaller venues like that can be more innovative with their concessions areas and make for a more enjoyable in-game experience. That's key for keeping fans happy and coming back, but also attracting a new generation of fans.

"Thousands of people getting a beer, getting a hot dog and hanging out," he said, is what he wants to see more of. "Filling up the stadiums, creating an environment where it's more fun to go to the games than to sit at home and watch it ... I think that's critically important."

In that sense, new revamped arenas in Hamilton, Winnipeg and Ottawa will set the standard for the stadiums of the future. Unlike other leagues, 65 per cent of the CFL's revenues come from fans attending games — as opposed to television viewers. "We are a gate-driven league so delivering on that brand promise is really important," Cohon said.

Regina is set to unveil the new home for Rider Pride in 2017 and it, too, is following the trend of going smaller: it can hold 30,000 people — but upgrade to 40,000 for larger events if necessary.

"There's just a real fun, new breath of air in the CFL today," Cohon said.

Player safety issues

Cohon also had good things to say about some initiatives the league has implemented in terms of player safety. The league was testing for banned substances like Human Growth Hormone years before other leagues were, and Cohon says the CFL implemented protocols for testing for concussions years before the NFL and other leagues did.

"The players understand that this is a tough sport, it's a contact sport and there is a risk of injury," he said. "But I also feel that we do everything in our power to educate the players."

For more, tune into Thursday nights episode of The Exchange with Amanda Lang to watch the complete interview. It will also be attached to this story once it's aired.