CFL Pass

CFL PREVIEW: Reilly perfect man to sell tickets, win games in B.C.

Whether behind centre or in front of a camera, Mike Reilly sounds confident and appears comfortable, which makes perfect sense.

At age 34, he’s a franchise quarterback and established star in the Canadian Football League, with two Grey Cup rings, a Grey Cup MVP award and a Most Outstanding Player award to prove his bonafides through nine seasons.

He is also the perfect man, perhaps the only one, for the job he took with the B.C. Lions on Feb. 12, when a highly chaotic CFL free agency period opened. It is a job that pays extremely well — $2.9 million over four seasons — and can accurately be split into two distinct and vital pieces: win games, sell tickets.

Not everybody is capable of filling either role. Fewer can do both with aplomb. But Reilly is a natural, a man who thrives in the spotlight and works just as hard behind closed doors while preparing for his closeup.

“You’ve got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable to play this position, for sure,” he said of quarterbacking in general. “We’re under the microscope all the time, right. Every little thing that we do is going to be judged by everybody. Some people are knowledgeable about it, most others are not.

“But that’s the business we are in and without the media reports and the fan interest, we wouldn’t have a job to do. So you understand that and you just get used to it.”

That’s the harsh reality for any starter in any market, but Reilly is the highest paid player in the league, by about $150,000. What’s more, the Lions announced his salary, and it’s the only one in the league that has been made public.

To fit that whopping $725,000 annual income into the CFL’s $5.25 million salary cap, the Lions had to make changes, and the shoe was already dropping the same day he signed as free agents Ricky Collins, Bo Lokombo, Anthony Orange, DeVier Posey and Chris Rainey headed out the door. There were more aftershocks in May when veteran linebacker Solomon Eliminian and fullback Rolly Lumbala were released.

As of mid-June, 18 former Lions had signed elsewhere in the CFL.

“It’s never a good feeling or something you’re happy about to see a veteran get released from the team, knowing that it’s cap-related,” said Reilly. “I’m not the only guy making money on this team but I have the biggest contract so for sure you know when you sign a deal (like his) some things are going to have to change. That’s why you don’t sign a deal like that unless you have confidence the GM can bring in young pieces that are going to help this team win.

“The fans for the longest time around here have been talking about how badly they want change. But I don’t think you necessarily understand as a casual fan that wanting change means there are going to be people you really like as players who aren’t going to be here anymore. That change is necessary.”

Simple math dictates as much. Reilly prepared himself for the fallout.

“You don’t sit there and celebrate it, but if you’re going to sign the deal, you’ve got to have broad shoulders for things like that and not let it affect you. No matter what I do it’s going to be critiqued and evaluated. If you can’t handle that, you’re in the wrong job.”

He has to handle on-field and off-field demands that come with the salary and the position, and he won’t half-ass either one. He has too much pride, for starters.

Ownership, management, coaches, the fan base, media and his teammates will also keep him on task. And only some of them will ever understand how much work he puts in to keep all those balls in the air.

“I’m just happy to have him on my team. It’s less of a headache for me,” said new Lions head coach DeVone Claybrooks, the former defensive co-ordinator for the Calgary Stampeders. “You can see why he is the type of player he is. You can see the time (he puts in), the countless hours of film session, the countless hours he’s been with receivers and running backs, and at times he’s meeting with the O-line on protection. How he teaches instead of directs, because there is a difference.”

That collaborative approach is part of a plan to win games and sell tickets in a market that likes but does not love the CFL enough for large scale public displays of affection. On the day Reilly signed his deal, the Lions marketing department put him to work on a video project. He smiled at the camera, leaned in and uttered two words: “Miss me?”

The Lions turned it into a compelling 50-second production, teasing his return to the franchise that brought him into the CFL in 2010.

“They wanted to be different. They wanted to get people’s attention. We filmed a ton of stuff that hasn’t come out yet,” Reilly said. “Our club is very aware of the social media aspect and entertainment aspect of what we have to do.”

Win games. Sell tickets.

The former helps the latter, but doesn’t provide guarantees. You have to be interesting even as you win. That’s how much work the Lions have to do to engage the market in Vancouver. Reilly relishes the two-pronged challenge.

“It’s about more than what we do on the field,” he said. “We know as the world has changed we have to pique people’s interests in different ways.

“All that being said, the golden rule still remains. Our main goal is to win a championship, but do it in a way that people are going to want to be a part of it, and feel invested in this team and this market. It’s a huge market that gives you great potential but it also a great challenge to get them not to go and do all the other things that are available to them.”