November 16, 2010
Allan Maki has a good piece in today's Globe and Mail on the remarkable off-field and on-field turnaround of the Calgary Stampeders since the days of former owner Michael Feterik. The team has found stability, started to make considerable amounts of cash and has seen a tremendous shift in their on-field fortunes as well. The whole piece is well worth a read, but perhaps the key question it brings up is if business success directly leads to team success.
At first glance, there appears to be some logic to that correlation if you go by the teams still alive in this year's playoffs. Both top seeds in particular have pretty strong business models. Calgary's obviously found a lot of financial stability and success under their new ownership group, as Maki lays out. It's also important that their current owners have strong ties to the team, the league and the community. Key owners John Forzani, Ted Hellard and Doug Mitchell (pictured left to right above at the 2005 press conference announcing their purchase of the team) certainly fulfill that criteria; Forzani is a former Stampeder and a successful local and national businessman who runs the Forzani Group of sporting-goods stores, Hellard grew up in town and played basketball for the University of Calgary Dinos before launching his Critical Mass Internet marketing business, and Mitchell is a prominent local lawyer and a former CFL commissioner. The ownership group also features several other former Stampeders, including Bob Viccars and Dave Sapunjis (the last Canadian to lead the league in receiving before fellow Western Mustangs' alumnus Andy Fantuz pulled off that feat this season). Things may be particularly good right now, but what might be even more critical is that this group looks to be there for the long haul.
In the East Division, Montreal's finances have improved dramatically under owner Robert Wetenhall almost since he bought the team in 1997, the same year they moved to Molson Stadium for the playoffs (and did so permanently the next season). Their new renovations to expand the stadium's capacity past 25,000 will further aid that. The Alouettes do have some big shoes to fill on the business side with the recently-announced departure of club president Larry Smith, but plenty of strong candidates appear interested in the job. Maki's article also suggests that the Alouettes bring in more revenue than any other CFL franchise, which I wouldn't have guessed given the limited size of their stadium and the incredible demand for all things football in other places like Saskatchewan. Still, Montreal's certainly found success on and off the field.
When you look at the other remaining teams in the playoffs, the Saskatchewan Roughriders obviously have found pretty significant business success as well. They probably have the largest fan base in the league (if you go by the TV numbers, CFL games involving Saskatchewan are usually at the top), and they usually blow everyone else away in merchandise sales. They also sold out every regular-season game this season, even if they couldn't quite pull that off for the playoffs (probably partly thanks to weather and partly thanks to adding extra bleacher seats). They're community-owned, so they may not have a deep-pocketed single owner the way other franchises do, but that also perhaps helps them connect with their fans more deeply. On the field, they've turned into a West Division powerhouse over the past several years, so they're certainly not the case to disprove this theory.
The Toronto Argonauts aren't in as strong of a position financially. Their home attendance numbers this year have not been good, and the team still frequently struggles to make an impact in a crowded media market despite an all-star business staff that includes Pinball Clemons, Chris Rudge and Bob Nicholson. Still, they now have an owner who's strongly committed to the success of the league and the club in David Braley (pictured at right during a 2002 press conference announcing he was taking over as the league's interim commissioner), and perhaps one who understands what it takes to be successful in the CFL better than David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski did (funnily enough, Cynamon still seems to have a bio page that lists him as "co-owner" on the team's website). It's unclear how much involvement they had in hiring rookie head coach Bart Andrus from the NFL last season or if that was a decision pushed by general manager Adam Rita, but under Braley, the Argonauts decided to go with an experienced CFL hand in Jim Barker. They reaped the benefits on the field this year, going from 3-15 to 9-9 with a playoff victory. That bodes well for their off-field future, as Braley told The National Post's Mark Masters Sunday:
"This win gives us more credibility," said Argos owner David Braley, who bought the team in the off-season and also owns the B.C. Lions. "It helps us with the development of our season-ticket base and all the things we need to do in the future to be successful. This is an opportunity to grab the attention of the Toronto marketplace. I don't think there is any question about it."
So, all four franchises moving on to the division finals have reasonably strong business cases. Correlation doesn't necessarily equal causation, though, and most of the franchises out of the playoffs are also in pretty good shape off the field. The Edmonton Eskimos are community-owned, drew solid attendance numbers despite a horrible start to the season, and don't have many questions around their business side, but they didn't make the playoffs despite a late run. B.C. is also owned by Braley and currently has a better business case than the Argonauts, but couldn't get past Saskatchewan Sunday. Hamilton has had some business struggles this year, particularly on the stadium front, but owner Bob Young is committed to the team and the stadium plans are apparently progressing. Winnipeg is probably in the worst business situation at the moment with the cost overrun of their stadium project and the potential withdrawal of David Asper's stadium plan/ownership bid, but it's hard to find a way to link that to their on-field struggles this year; their community owners haven't really interfered with the team's football operations this season, and the bigger issue on the field was just a rash of quarterback injuries.
That doesn't mean there's no connection between off-field and on-field success. Some of the worst periods for CFL teams have come with poor owners and off-field turmoil, and Maki's piece reinforces that. It's no surprise that the Stampeders struggled under Michael Feterik, who might have bought the team just to give his son a place to play quarterback and chased Wally Buono out of town, and it's also not particularly surprising that they're doing better on and off the field under more committed and knowledgeable ownership. In fact, I think you can make an excellent case that on-field success is the most important factor in off-field success; it's much easier to have a strong business case when your team is doing well.
The connection can go the other way as well, but its effects may be most prominent in a negative sense. Poor ownership and business management can be very destructive to a team's on-field prospects, but strong ownership alone isn't enough to ensure that a team wins. For on-field success, owners need to put the right people in place, give them time to work and get a considerable amount of luck as well. There aren't really any awful owners or horribly struggling franchises in the CFL right now, which may have contributed to the parity we saw this season, but that also means that the success the teams still in the playoffs have found isn't necessarily a reflection that their ownership is better or their business case is stronger. Good ownership and a detailed business plan are essential building blocks for on-field success, but they remains just a starting point. You need to build a strong football side on that foundation, and that's the biggest key to long-term business success.