Commissioner Mark Cohon sees very tangible signs that his Canadian Football League is seizing its current opportunity to make big strides in Southern Ontario, Canada's most competitive sports marketplace.
Cohon cites higher team revenues and television ratings this season over last for both the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who will meet in the final game of the regular season Thursday night at Rogers Centre with the Tabbies' playoff hopes hanging in the balance. Cohon says both franchises are executing initiatives that go way beyond just creating short-term buzz for the upcoming 100th Grey Cup in Toronto or the new state-of-the-art stadium to be built in Hamilton. He believes the CFL has effectively started to cultivate new, long-term fans in this heavily saturated sports market with grass-roots football initiatives and sound marketing strategies.
"Being in sports for over 20 years, I have learned that you can have big events and high TV ratings, but you have to also have tactical initiatives that give opportunities to new Canadians and young kids – rebuilding things and starting new programs out of it, and our franchises are executing those," Cohon said. "The big events will create the excitement, but we are also drilling down to make sure we turn people in Southern Ontario into long-term fans."
Last November, the CFL's board of governors approved a million-dollar investment in research, marketing and community initiatives in southern Ontario, with funds contributed by all teams and split evenly by the Argos and Ticats. One year later, both teams say the money is being put to effective use.
THE ARGONAUTS' FOCUS: NEW CANADIANS AND YOUNG FAMILIES
Market research showed the CFL and the Argos few surprises – the team's base of season seat holders are loyal but mainly older Torontonians, and the demographics of that base isn't representative of modern-day Toronto. The city has changed dramatically in recent decades through immigration, population growth and sprawl into the 905.
One of the Argos' top initiatives became engaging with young families, particularly those in one of Toronto's fastest-growing communities – new Canadians from South Asia. They have met with community leaders and increased advertising in the metro area's South Asian media, team president Chris Rudge even being interviewed during cricket broadcasts.
Argonaut players are doing "Football 101" workshops with students and parents at high schools with large populations of new Canadians, many of whom have started new football programs via funding and mentoring from the Argos' "Level the Playing Field" program which began in 2009.
"We went from a group of kids who had never played football last year and knew nothing about the sport, to a team this year who drew 600 people to a recent home game, and football has really helped the spirit at a school that was never known for sports," said Kyle Franchetto, coach of W.A. Porter Collegiate in Scarborough, after his team, just started last year, attended an Argos workshop for new Canadians. "Now our students are talking about football in the halls and on Facebook and Twitter, and we hope to go down together and be part of the Grey Cup festival."
While one such workshop drew a mere handful of high school players and coaches, another packed the auditorium and sold 60 tickets to an Argonauts game.
"If we can't take advantage of having this 100th festival here in Toronto, we will have lost an opportunity that will never come to us again to re-ignite the CFL and the Argo brand here in Toronto's marketplace," said Rudge. "I think the festival itself will knock it out of the park, and the game is making a statement that there is still a lot of interest for exciting football entertainment in Toronto. The average age of our season ticket holders is older, and if we don't continue to rebuild a younger base, they will move on and we're going to be treading water. We must reach out to a younger demographic."
Much of the CFL's own marketing of the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto also has to do with the Cup's storied history in the area – celebrating Toronto's past Grey Cup champs, like Balmy Beach and the University of Toronto. They put images and educational material about the Grey Cup in places like children's magazines and textbooks, in Canada's new passport and in Ontario's Tim Horton's restaurants.
Rudge says season ticket sales are up approximately 30-35 per cent for this season over last (keep in mind season seat holders did get priority to buy Grey Cup tickets), and game-by-game sales are up by double digits. Cohon says TV ratings for the Argonauts are up 10 per cent in Ontario this season over last season, and similarly nationwide, as the 8-9 team has secured its playoff spot and will host the East semi-final next weekend.
THE TIGER-CATS' FOCUS: REGIONALIZING BEYOND HAMILTON
The Ticats have a large and loyal following within Hamilton. Indeed, team president Scott Mitchell says, the club's research shows that for every Ticats home game, one out of every five Hamiltonians is either at the game, watching on TV or listening on the radio. So the franchise used the CFL funds to strengthen its popularity in adjacent communities like Burlington, Brantford, St. Catharines and Kitchener-Waterloo.
The team started to run some practices in those communities and host commissioner's lunches. Other strategies engage new young fans – healthy breakfast and active-play programs with school kids and mentorship programs for high-school football squads.
"We sold some 2,000 new season seats this year, and more than 50 per cent of them came from outside Hamilton," said Mitchell. "So it's been a great year marketing-wise, this opportunity has been wildly successful, and we've seen other specific tangible results across the board, like a rise in our website traffic and in our followers on Twitter and Facebook. This really positions us well to be the next team that's not only sustainable but profitable moving forward, so kudos to the CFL's board for recognizing that they need to be progressive in this marketplace to be competitive within in."
Cohon says TV viewer numbers for Tiger-Cats games were up about 13 per cent within Ontario this season over last year, and 16 per cent nationwide. The 6-11 Ticats need a win on Thursday combined with a loss by the Edmonton Eskimos to make the playoffs.
WILL THE STRATEGIES WORK?
Cheri Bradish is an associate professor of sports management at Brock University, specializing in sports marketing. She sees strong merit in many of the initiatives. In her words:
– "There is a strong trend toward what some call retro-marketing, a nod to the past that's important to building the future, so I think it's very wise on the CFL's part to tell stories about Toronto's history with the CFL, honour past champions and it's a great way to engage and educate new demographics. Storytelling resonates with consumers."
– "To create a legacy out of a pinnacle event, you need to develop a sustained grass roots sports development or development for the community. You have to create interest in the sport long term."
– "There is really something to be said about the branding of being uniquely, proudly Canadian. The 100th Grey Cup won't be on the same scale as the Olympics, but as we have experienced, when we can effectively capture that Canadian passion and put it into the nation's psyche, it can add to the brand-building of a sport property."