September 1, 2007

Community ownership a port in CFL’s storms

Esks, Bombers and ‘Riders prove public model works

By Tony Seskus,
Calgary Herald

He may be wearing a helmet and shoulder pads carved out of watermelon, but ask Saskatchewan football fan Booker Wills what he loves about his Roughriders and you’ll get a reply fuelled by pride, not Pilsner.

“The ‘Riders are a community-owned team, and no one is really community-owned any more,” says Wills, 22, cheering on his team from the raucous cheap seats tucked in a corner of Regina’s Mosaic Stadium.

“It’s very special. My uncle bought a share. He has a say about what goes on. He feels like he’s a part of a team.”

The ‘Riders are a rare breed these days.

The Canadian Football League has seen community ownership come and go over the years, but Saskatchewan is one of three teams — including Edmonton and Winnipeg — not operated by private owners.

That number seems destined to shrink, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers advancing with a strategy that would end 77 years of community ownership in return for a sorely needed $120-million stadium.

With such a change, it would appear time is running out on the community-ownership model in Canadian football. After all, the Green Bay Packers are the only community-operated team in the National Football League.

But experts and longtime football executives believe the community model still has a place in the league.

“You may see markets return to a public model,” says Lyle Bauer, president of the Bombers.

“You may see new franchises come in (to the league) that go to a public model. Calgary, quite frankly, is as close to being a public model as you possibly can be given the ownership structure, the way it’s designed and the outreach with the community.”

Canadian football has a long history of community ownership, with several teams born out of the rugby clubs that took up the gridiron game decades ago when the sport attracted more curious onlookers than fans.

The Toronto Argonauts, one of the oldest professional sports franchises in North America, were formed in 1873 by the Argonaut Rowing Club. As time passed, some teams attracted private ownership — including the famed Argos, which were sold by the rowing club in 1957.

Other clubs were purchased by private owners more recently, including the B.C. Lions (1990) and Calgary Stampeders (1991).

Often when private owners crossed the CFL’s stage, it was with the promise of turning a struggling franchise around, sometimes using big dollars to make big-player signings.

But during the 1980s and ’90s, it frequently ended in disaster for the fans and the league.

In 1981, Vancouver businessman Nelson Skalbania bought the Montreal Alouettes, signing big-name U.S. stars such as Super Bowl quarterback Vince Ferragamo and receiver Billy (White Shoes) Johnson. But the team ran into bankruptcy after its pricey stars proved a bust on the field.

In 1989, Vancouver stock promoter Murray Pezim bought the Lions, signing U.S. talents Doug Flutie and Mark Gastineau. But financial problems emerged and the league later took over the team until Bill Comrie purchased it in 1992.

Ottawa has had such troubled ownership that its beloved Rough Riders collapsed, and the Renegades took their place and similarly folded, all in the span of a decade.

Community-owned teams have had their struggles, too.

Notably, the Stampeders were on the verge of folding in 1986 until the S.O.S ticket drive — Save Our Stamps — rescued the team.

But through good times and bad, the Eskimos, Bombers and Roughriders always found a way to keep going.

“This is no knock on private ownership, none whatsoever,” says Bombers president Bauer.

“But if you look back, you’ll see there are three teams that have been there through thick and thin, through every franchise that has changed hands, where owners have walked away, teams that have been bailed out.

“There are three teams that have been there and three groups of ownership that have been consistent, that have stepped up to the plate. That’s Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Edmonton.”

Today, private ownership in the league appears more solid than it has been in years, despite the unexpected 2006 demise of the Renegades.

With momentum in the league’s favour, the Blue Bombers are looking to improve the football club by moving into a new stadium.

Local businessman and Bomber fan David Asper proposes to build that stadium. In exchange, ownership of the team would be transferred to him. Bauer says the move isn’t about ownership change, but about getting a sorely needed replacement for the team’s 54-year-old facility.

Asper is executive vice president of CanWest Global Communications, which owns several Canadian newspapers, including the Calgary Herald.

Asper, who once sat on the team’s community board, says the team needs private capital to build a stadium — and the team needs a new stadium to ensure its survival.

“I’ve always said this club could operate as a community team if, like Edmonton, it had a capital pool of $10 million, $15 million or $20 million — but it doesn’t,” he says.

Rick LeLacheur, president and chief executive of the Eskimos, also believes in the future of community ownership, with one proviso. “It has to be well-financed,” he cautions. “I think community ownership with a team in financial disorder would have a problem doing it.”

And the key to success for community-owned teams is financial discipline and success on the field, LeLacheur says. The Eskimos have a reputation for both.

Last year was the first time the team has missed the playoffs since the early 1970s — and the team still turned a profit. It also has $8.8 million socked away in a stabilization account.

“Over the long term, Saskatchewan and us have done quite well financially, and so can continue that way of operating,” LeLacheur adds.

Jim Hopson, president and chief executive of the Roughriders, believes community ownership can and does work in the CFL.

“There are challenges to community ownership, but the reality is in Saskatchewan it might be the only model that is successful,” says Hopson, a former ‘Rider player. “Part of the reason our fans are so rabid and so supportive of them is they really feel they’re owners and it’s their team. And they understand the importance of their support.

“If it was a private owner in here, quite frankly, in those lean years when we weren’t playing well and the team was struggling, I just don’t think people would have shown the same level of support, and the owner would’ve been stuck with tremendous losses.”

Norman O’Reilly, director of the school of sports administration at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., doesn’t expect the ranks of community-owned teams to expand unless there’s a financial crisis within the league that requires that level of public support.

However, he thinks the model is an asset because it forges a direct relationship with fans.

“It’s a model that can work very well in a second-tier professional league because you really buy into people,” says O’Reilly.

“There’s vast empirical support to show attachment to a team leads to purchase of tickets, support of sponsors’ products, buying of merchandise and watching on television — all those things eventually drive revenue of a team.”

In Saskatchewan, there’s no question that fans such as Wills are devoted to the Roughriders.

Members of ‘Rider Nation, draped in Saskatchewan flags and sporting watermelons, travel hundreds of kilometres to watch their team play for their community.

” ‘Rider pride — that’s what it’s all about,” Wills says. “I bleed green.”