The Business of Football

May 8, 2009 — The Canadian Business Journal

The citizens of Saskatchewan have dreamt in green and white for over 60 years. Whether their Roughriders are winning or losing, fans have shown unwavering support since the first coin toss in Mosaic Stadium.

For some teams, fan support is a by-product of a long winning streak, great players and an exhilarating sports experience. Not for the Roughriders. It doesn’t matter what the team does; fans will cheer through the good and the bad—with or without watermelon helmets. Here, the team belongs to its fans.

Since its inception, the Roughriders have been a provincially owned and operated team. And while they’ve enjoyed the positive consequences of a fan-base that is literally invested in the team, they’ve also had a history of being the underdogs, the nice bunch of kids you feel sorry for.

If you look at the former structure of the team, you can see why the Roughriders struggled for so many years. Until 2005, the team was run by a group of dedicated volunteers and a bare-bone staff. The only paid employees were players, coaches and the general manager. On the administration side, they hired an accountant, a ticket office manager, a sponsorship coordinator a communications liaison.

The Roughriders worked with that business model from 1948 to 2004. To be fair, it used to work. For years, the rest of the CFL had the same mom-and-pop business structure: small nucleus of staff, low expenses and just enough revenue to run the operation. It was into the ‘80s and ‘90s that some of the franchises starting expanding, becoming more like modern businesses. The Riders kept back and continued looking to the community to keep them going.

Though the team had a great surge in 1989, capturing their second Grey Cup, the victory was sandwiched between a long series of tough seasons. Barely generating enough income to exist, the Green and White were held together by loyal sponsors and fans who wouldn’t give up.

Changing the play

Finally, the management committee started to re-evaluate the status quo. They knew that if the Roughriders wanted to stay in the CFL and compete, the business model had to change. The committee looked to the Green Bay Packers for advice—the only NFL team that had a similar structure to theirs. They saw how successful Green Bay was with their shareholders, CEO and board elections, so Saskatchewan moved to that model in 2005. The Riders are still community-owned, only now they have a functioning structure and an expectation to profit.

Elected first Roughriders President and CEO was Jim Hopson.

Growing up in Regina, Hopson played football and followed the Roughriders as a kid. In the mid-1970s, he got the opportunity to play on the team as a guard and tackle for a few seasons, before leaving to begin his career in education.

Why come back to the team after all these years? On top of being the best job in the province, Hopson says that the Riders get in your blood. Besides, he wanted to see his team get back on its feet.

Teaching an old team new tricks

The change in structure was quite a shift. The board moved from having a hands-on role to more policy governance and holding the system accountable. The volunteers are still a part of the team, only now they aren’t the ones driving the organization. There have also been challenges in building the infrastructure to support the business and keeping up with mounting expectations. Although the transformation isn’t complete, the organization sees that it’s all been worthwhile. The change is readily apparent. The team has seen a significant increase in ticket sales, merchandise sales and sponsorships.

According to Hopson, the biggest change everyone had to make was mental.

“There was a feeling here that we had to get lucky to win Grey Cups, or make the playoffs, or to be successful in general. I guess we used to see ourselves as a charity,” explains Hopson. “At one point, people supported us because they loved us, so they bought tickets to keep the team alive. Sponsorships were more like donations.”

“We had to start believing that we could be one of the leading teams in the CFL. And that’s what happened. Our philosophy has changed from surviving to thriving.”

No longer the lovable losers, the Roughriders are a team to be reckoned with. The bar has been raised and the people come out expecting the sports experience that the organization has gone out of its way to provide. Now it’s a matter of maintaining their success and raising the province’s expectations.

“More important than winning is putting fans in the stadium,” beams Hopson. “We have a great season ticket base, and our sponsors have stepped up and are tremendously supportive—people are seeing value in what we do.”

“Everything we do is to support the Roughriders,” says Hopson, “whether it’s bringing in better coaching staff, facilities, equipment, accommodations or amenities, we try to give the team a sense of support. We want them to feel like they’re in a great professional organization.”

The organization change has also helped the players’ collective psyche.

“There used to be an attitude that good players wouldn’t come here and that we weren’t able to compete,” Hopson says. “But that’s totally gone now. Guys want to play here. Free agents want to come here. It’s a positive environment.”

Mosaic Stadium and the Saskatchewan boom

The story of Mosaic Stadium mirrors the story of the Roughriders. Fans went from being happy they even had a stadium to expecting more from it.

Renovations, such as seating and lighting, are badly needed, but these improvements would cost the team tens of millions. With that kind of money, there has been talk of building a brand new stadium.

“When it was first suggested a few years ago, we didn’t think it would happen,” explains Hopson. “But in the new Saskatchewan, with everything booming and the spirit of optimism everywhere, a new stadium is something that people are willing to look into.”

In the meetings, there has been mention of a dome stadium—a great option for the Saskatchewan climate and for attracting live entertainment to Regina. The local government and public seem to be behind the idea, even if it means delegating tax dollars to the project. Hopson suspects that the support is a consequence of what the Roughriders mean to the province.

“The Saskatchewan Roughriders have really helped give this province its identity,” he explains. “A lot of people recognise the Green and White. Geographically speaking, we’re a big province and this team unifies everyone. The Riders are important and our leaders understand that.”

Aside from a community identity, the Roughriders represent considerable financial spinoff. with the Roughriders. In fact, the team is now listed as one of the top 100 businesses in the province for revenue growth. Just last month, the board’s Chair and Hopson were recognized in the Saskatchewan Business Magazine as businesspeople of influence in the province.

Going long

The business was pretty easy to build when Hopson came on board—the team had nowhere to go but up. But now that they’ve been successful, it’s about looking for new opportunities for success.

In the immediate future, the Roughriders are looking into more merchandising, communicating with fans through a better website and foster long-term relationships with sponsors. Mostly, Hopson wants to grow the season ticket base. And to do that, he needs more seats—whether that means a new stadium or expanded one at Mosaic.

Putting the business aspect on the side for a moment, Hopson explains that he would like to see the community relations division expand, a priority for the entire organization.

“We know that we’re not just a business,” he says. “We have to remember that the Roughriders have a unique relationship with the fans and the province. That’s why we have a community relations coordinator and a dozen players who give back during the offseason, visiting schools and communities. We’ve done a great job with our community programs so far, but with so many players and so many requests, we want to formalise that process so it can be ongoing.”

The Green and White aren’t going anywhere. Roughriders fans will enjoy carving watermelon helmets, dressing up their pets and painting their faces for seasons to come.

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