Its not often you see a story about the Riders in the business section of the Regina Leader-Post but there is one in there today courtesy Bruce Johnstone. If there was a story in the business section about the team you would think it revolves around gloom and doom as has been the case in previous years but not this time around. As you will read, Jim Hopson's vision for the Riders is being met.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders are more than just Canada's favourite football team; it's a multi-million-dollar-a-year business that generates about half the merchandise revenues of the Canadian Football League.
But Riders president and CEO Jim Hopson said the team had to overcome many challenges to become one of the most successful in the CFL.
Hopson told the inaugural Kenneth Levene Graduate School of Business luncheon Thursday that Canada's Team was on its last legs in the 1990s, surviving on charity telethons and a dwindling base of hard-core fans.
Hopson credited the then-board of directors for making the changes required to turn the Riders from also-rans into one of the most stable franchises in the league.
"The board ... came to the realization in the 1990s that the model we had wasn't working ... in terms of success -- both on and off the field,'' said Hopson, a Regina native who played with the Roughriders in the 1970s.
The team's management committee, led by Regina chartered accountant Tom Robinson, looked at the only community-owned team in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers, for guidance.
From Green Bay, the Riders adopted the model of an elected board of directors, then moved the organization from being "volunteer-driven, staff-supported'' to "staff-driven and volunteer-supported,'' Hopson said.
"The key was looking at (the team) differently in terms of being a business, then hiring someone to be the chief executive.'' That someone turned out to be Hopson, who spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator, in addition to his four-year professional football career, which ended following the 1976 Grey Cup game.
Hopson took over as the club's first CEO in 2005 and committed to winning a Grey Cup in five years. "Whether you're called the president, CEO, dean, general manager, captain, it doesn't matter. You have to have a vision.''
And Hopson's vision was to replace the old vision of a small-market team "struggling to be successful" with that of a community-owned team with deep roots in the province, a proud history and loyal fans, not just in the province, but all over the country.
"Coming on board, I made it very clear that we were going to become a major league team, that we weren't going to be 'the little train that could'," Hopson said.
Besides vision, Hopson credited people, such as former teammate and current vice-president of marketing manager, Steve Mazurak, as another key factor in the recent success of the Riders. Hiring general manager Eric Tillman in 2006 and former Rider star quarterback, Kent Austin, as head coach, led directly to the Riders' 2007 Grey Cup championship.
Success on the field has led to success off the field, as the Riders posted a record $5 million in merchandise revenues -- tops in the league -- and a $1.7-million profit in fiscal 2007. Hopson will announce even larger merchandising revenues for 2008 at the club's annual general meeting this month.
"Are we there yet? No, we're not there yet. We've still got lots of areas of growth we can address, but I think we've come a long way.''
I have said it once and I will say it again. The day Hopson started as president and CEO of this football team was the day things started to change. While Kent Austin and Eric Tillman deserve every bit of credit they get for the 2007 championship, make no doubt about it that Hopson is the guy who made it all happen. Rider fans should be extremely greatful to this man for what he has done for the franchise. I don't know when his contract expires but its time to sign him to an extension.