Eskimos’ president Len Rhodes speaks about why the team got on board with Hail Mary

There was one particularly notable element in the inaugural episode of Hail Mary, the Anaid Productions/CityTV documentary series about players trying to make the Edmonton Eskimos that premiered Saturday. The stories of athletes involved in the team's open tryout in Cincinnati were certainly compelling, but what really made the show stand out was the access it displayed to Eskimos' staffers and their thought processes. In particular, Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman and assistant general manager/director of player personnel Paul Jones (who ran the open tryout) were remarkably candid, especially at one particular post-tryout discussion where Jones and other staffers discussed the players they saw over food and drinks at a local bar. That kind of access carries huge value for football-focused viewers, but many football departments want to keep as much information as possible under wraps, which is part of the reason most organizations aren't big on extending such intensive access (see all those who passed on HBO's Hard Knocks this year). As such, access was a key point of discussion when I spoke with Eskimos' president Len Rhodes this week.

Rhodes said the Hail Mary concept was pitched to him by Anaid founder and executive producer Margaret Mardirossian, and he said it immediately seemed attractive as a way to engage both new and existing fans.

"When I heard that, I said, 'Okay, absolutely!'" he said. "It's in line with my strategy of trying to reach out to fans. Fans come to 10 games a year, but there are 365 days where we want to interact with fans."

He said as a gate-driven league, fan support is crucial to the CFL's success, but teams have to do more than just provide a good game-day experience.

"At the core of our strategy is the premise that everything we do reflects back to the fans," Rhodes said. "It's finding ways to engage our fans in non-traditional ways."

Rhodes said he had several key conditions Anaid had to meet in order to do this series, though. He wanted it to be real, not scripted, and he wanted the Eskimos to be able to review episodes before they were aired.

"There'd be no acting, we'd review everything, and it would reflect the authenticity," he said.

Of course, in order to make this work, Rhodes had to get his football staff on board. You wouldn't expect that to be an easy task given how secretive many CFL teams' football operations departments are, and you'd be right.

"There were concerns," Rhodes said. "This is something a lot of teams wouldn't consider."

He said the show only went ahead once the football staff agreed to it.

"I didn't want to force my football operations group into this," Rhodes said. "I wanted them to buy in. It took two to three weeks."

Even after that, Rhodes said it wasn't entirely easy to go ahead with this, as the Eskimos don't want to damage their on-field product by revealing their secrets. He said Hail Mary's backwards focus was a significant boon from that corner, though; the show's airing now (Saturday nights at 10 p.m. local on most CityTV stations), but it's mostly focused on things that happened at training camp and before, so it's not like other teams can get inside information on who's making the Eskimos' roster.

"The fact it airs after we made our selections certainly helped," Rhodes said. "There's a balance in terms of keeping team secrets from going public."

Rhodes said it also helped that series producer David Benson had such an extensive sports background. In addition to the many famed documentary shows he's worked on over the years, including OLN's The Rig, Benson's worked with ESPN, TSN and Sportsnet and has worked on several Olympics and the NHL's 2003 Heritage Classic.

"We had the confidence this guy knows what football's about," Rhodes said.

With the team viewing footage before it aired, there was obviously the potential for conflict, but Rhodes said there hasn't been much, and that the changes the Eskimos have suggested have mostly been small things like official titles and terminology.

"Thus far, I must say the process has been extremely easy," he said. "There's been very few points of contention."

He said he's impressed with the final product, too, particularly how it's portrayed the emotions involved for potential players.

"It's been really good," Rhodes said. "It reflects the highs, the lows."

He said the detailed background pieces on players are a great way to show where these guys are coming from.

"The players, they are more than just a number, a jersey on the field," Rhodes said. "They are human beings."

Rhodes was also pleased with the amount of detail Anaid was able to include on open tryouts and the scouting staff's offseason work, something many CFL fans don't know much about.

"A lot of the work goes in before the season," he said. "Viewers who saw the first episode, I think, were in for a shock in terms of the intensity."

Rhodes said although this project comes with challenges and risks, giving fans a glance at what really goes on with the team's worth it in the long run.

"It's a look behind the scenes," he said. "I think our fans will really benefit from this."

The second Hail Mary episode airs Saturday at 10 p.m. local on most CityTV stations. See the CityTV site for more information.

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