The Rise of the Roughriders

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This does it. This clinches it.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are now -- undeniably, unquestionably and unequivocally -- the new flagship franchise of the Canadian Football League.

A miracle franchise through most of its history, which has included more tough times than not and with fewer Grey Cups (three) to celebrate than any other team, Saskatchewan has been tracking toward this for some time.

But this does it. This puts it over the top.

Back in 2003 when they last held the Grey Cup here, it was the Evil Empire, as the Edmonton Eskimos were known, coming to collect their first of two Grey Cups in a run of three appearances in four years. The second one, in 2005, was the last of Edmonton's North American pro sports record of 34 consecutive years in the playoffs.

That was the turning point.

The winning stopped in Edmonton, but until this year, the former flagship franchise in the late, great City of Champions still managed to annually outdraw every team in the CFL.

That changed this year.

At the same time Edmonton fans were abandoning ship, the Roughriders set a CFL record not known to many -- including their own fans -- but one that my never be broken.

They figured in each of the top 14 attendance figures in the league this season (see accompanying chart).

The Riders started the year with the announcement that old Taylor Field, now Mosaic Stadium, will be replaced with a new sunken-bowl stadium. It will seat 33,000 at a projected cost of $278 million and built to support the construction of a retractable roof for the future, which will be in place for the 2017 season.

Over the past decade, thanks to natural resources such as potash and uranium, Saskatchewan has quietly gone from a poor province to a rich one.

"When we started winning in 2007, it was at a time the province was taking off, people were moving back to live in the province and buying season tickets," said Jim Hopson, the Riders' president and CEO. "A new stadium was never more than a dream before then. But it seems like all things are possible now."

Hopson moved into the job in 2005. But he was a Regina Ram junior player before becoming a Rider in the early '70s through to the 1976 Grey Cup loss. After his playing days, he was a member of the business community. So he's been through the good times and the bad.

"This team had a great run in the '60s with Ron Lancaster and George Reed in Grey Cups and had great fan support. But we went through some pretty bad times in the '80s and really struggled again in the late '90s when we needed telethons, exchanged tickets for wheat, and there was great concern the franchise would even survive."

Hopson said it's been the flight of the Phoenix since then.

"What's happened with us began with a real change in the culture organization. It starts with the board," he said of the directors of the community-owned franchise.

"We had to change the model. We had to change the culture. The culture was that of an organization that expected to struggle. We were a small franchise. We were the smallest city in North America with a professional football team. We're smaller than Green Bay. We like to compare ourselves to Green Bay.

"There was always the belief players didn't want to come here, that coaches didn't want to come here. I didn't believe that. I saw it in the '70s. We had the Ron Lancasters, George Reeds, Hughie Campbells, Ed McQuarters and Jack Abendschans. So I think that's where it started. Then getting the right people -- that's so critical."

Ironically, they tapped into Edmonton.

They adopted Edmonton's model in governance and the two boards would alternate in making visitations to the other city for games and consultations.

"Edmonton was always the benchmark," said Hopson.

"Having the Grey Cup here in 2003 really helped. It allowed us to pay off some of our debt. The provincial government forgave $2 million in loans in 2005."

For years, the biggest export here was people. They went forth and multiplied -- staying Saskatchewan fans for life and giving birth to little Rider Priders.

All of that explains the massive television numbers for Sunday's Western final, in which the entire Calgary crowd had departed the stadium while 10,000-plus green-clad Saskatchewan fans stayed to savour every single, solitary second. The TSN telecast produced an average audience of 1.9 million with a peak audience of 2.7 million.

"We're not only told that we've been in all those games with the top crowds in the league, but it's very similar with the top television numbers, too. Certainly, the top four or five," said Hopson.

And it's not just about attendance and viewers.

It's about sponsorship and merchandise.

For the past few years, the Roughriders have been able to say they sell as much merchandise as the rest of the league combined.

"We are now told that our sales actually exceed the rest of the league combined," Hopson said, indicating it's now by a healthy margin.

"It's been big driver of our economic engine.

"We annually average $7 million out of our four stores, one in Saskatoon, two in Regina and our team store at the stadium. We also have online sales. In 2010, our centennial year, we exceeded $10 million. This year, with the Grey Cup, it'll at least be in that range again."

There are NHL teams, including three of them in neighbouring provinces, envious of the Roughriders.

"We are only behind the Montreal Canadians and Toronto Maple Leafs," said Hopson.

For all of this, Hopson bestows credit to another ex-Rider: Steve Mazurak, who had contested the president and CEO job against him.

"We were old teammates together with the Rams and the Riders. Steve had a great background in sales. I knew his commitment to the Riders."

Part of Mazurak's job was sponsorships.

"We needed to change our view of sponsorships. We used to look at them mostly as ticket deals. We've gone from $1.5 million to over $5 million a year."

This year, the Roughriders led the league in season tickets with 28,000.

"We were the top team for the first time ever. Traditionally, it had been Edmonton."

It's on the field where, by getting to this Grey Cup, the Roughriders have also achieved flagship-franchise status.

For three years of four, they were in the Grey Cup, winning in 2007 and then losing back-to-back in 2009 and 2010 to the Montreal Alouettes, including the nightmare 13th-man fiasco in which a-too-many-men-on-the-field penalty turned an end-of-game missed field goal for the win into a successful do-over field goal for the loss.

But this proves they're the kind of stable franchise on the football side. They don't rebuild. They reload.

And that's why Hopson became so emotional after the win in Calgary when he confessed to your corespondent: "I cried like a baby at the end of the game."

Four Grey Cup appearances in the seven seasons with a reload in the middle makes the statement.

"We started in '07," he said. "It's been a pretty good run.

"It doesn't rival the great days of the Edmonton Eskimos yet, but it's pretty damn good, especially in a salary cap era where it's hard to build a team that stays good for a while."

Hopson wants Canada to know the job that Brendan Taman did as general manager to make this happen, together with Cory Chamblin coming on as head coach last year and putting all the pieces together.

"When we won the rights to play host to this Grey Cup, we were in a rebuild mode," said Hopson.

"Going into last year Brendan really felt we had to reload and restock. We made a lot of changes.

"With the job Brendan did in free agency going into this season, we felt we could contend and that this team was built to win."

Taman used free agency free agency the way it is supposed to work.

He used it to complete the final pieces of the puzzle after the Roughriders returned to the playoffs last year after a 5-13 season in 2011.

"This year was a culmination of what Brendan and Corey started last year. In 2012, the team got younger and faster, as was the goal. This year, they looked at putting the pieces in place."

Those pieces? Geroy Simon. Dwight Anderson. Ricky Foley. Weldon Brown. And John Chick and Rob Williams came back from the NFL.

"I know Brendan wasn't seen by all as maybe the best pick to be GM. But I've always had tremendous faith in him. And he did a masterful job -- Corey as well. They work together."

Much ado about nothing. We're not talking about an Original Six hockey club versus deadweight markets in the southern US. In the CFL, every team is equally important to the long-term survival of the league.

Please move this to the Roughrider Forum. :lol:

OK for this one week, let them have their fun but after this could the mods please put the self promotion stuff where it belongs.

Have a great time this week. See you on Friday.

it is written by an eskimo beat writter and talks about how the riders impressivly turned themselves from a down-and-out franchise on the brink of extinction into the biggest money maker in the league. the article also contains some interesting league stats, both tv, attendance and merchandise.
this is not self promotion, or it would be a Rider beat writter bragging and a Rider fan posting.
i - a non-rider fan - am posting this purely for the information.

Ok please from this point on I will not post anything that is not serious.

...this is a good story, and one that all of us CFL fans should be happy for.....

...part of me wants the TiCats to win, because holy moley from last to first would be incredible...but part of me wants the Riders to win because that is how a storybook seasons ends...

I couldn't have put it better. Though I've been a Stamps fan since I was about four years old (I'm now 55) the Riders have always caught my attention. From Lancaster, Reed and Campbell to Durant, Dressler et al they've always caught my attention. OTOH the Cats rise has been fascinating and I'd like to see them win as well. Looking forward to a great Sunday.

Kind of a reflection of the comeback the CFL is on as a league.

Great read

Gives us in Ontario Hope !

I'm going to have to burst Mr. Hopson's bubble, but Regina is twice the size of Green Bay. Otherwise it was a good article.

Depends on the statistical measure used.

Regina: 193k
Green Bay: 105k

Regina: 226k
Green Bay: 306k

Then of course there's:
Wisconsin: 5.7 million
Saskatchewan: 1.1 million

Don't forget also that there are 1.5 million people within a 2 hour drive to Lambeau Field.

bump for the blind.

just listening to TSN Winnipeg 1290;
they just had Geroy 'Superman' Simon as a guest who revealed he will be back next year and it will be his last.
i wonder if the Riders protect him, or if Ottawa would consider drafting him if he was left unprotected?

25 tidbits about the riders:

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This is a team, after all, that has been to the dance 18 times before this year - and won three of them.

I think he will be unprotected but I cannot see Ottawa selecting him. He still is going to be making some damn good money and if I was building a brand new team I would not want a one year rental at that price.

:thup: :thup:

As a long time Rider fan, I can appreciate what other teams are going thru, some for the first time in recent memory (Eskimos). We put up with decades of a poor product. Frankly I'd like to enjoy for a while a successful team that puts a number of GCs on the shelve. We missed out in two recently, so I hope this GC kicks off a string of GCs.

They could pull it off this time Starbuck23 but personally I doubt they will win 2 in a row let alone a "string" of Grey Cups. Winning back to back Grey Cups appears to be a rarity. Some teams have succeeded but many have not. Edmonton enjoyed a dynasty in the 1970s winning 5 straight Grey Cup Championships. Winnipeg almost came close to doing that by winning two in a row, then missing getting into the Grey Cup in 1960 and then winning two Grey Cups in a row again. Had they not got knocked off in 1960 and won the Grey Cup in that year Winnipeg would have won 5 straight Grey Cups like Edmonton did in the 70s. I was curious so I checked the archives and noticed in those days the Western Final was a best out of 3 series. The Bombers played Edmonton in that Western Final and each team won a game. Guess what the score was in the 3rd and decisive game? 4-2 for Edmonton!