HAMILTON -- The banners hang from the light posts all over town.
"Home of the Ticats."
"Show Your Stripes."
There's a football feel in Canada's much-maligned steeltown which for years -- years and years ago -- used to express itself through the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The theory was that there was no Hamilton anymore, that this rust-belt city on the Canadian side of the border sort of got sucked up into the southern Ontario population sprawl.
All it took was one owner who proved to the populace that he cared.
The Eskimos, when they arrive here today, aren't going to believe the difference.
"It's exciting. It's fun," said Dave Hack, an eight-year Tiger-Cat who until this year wondered if you could play your whole career here with nobody ever knowing who you were.
"Wait till game day. Wait till you see it. It's an amazing difference," said the offensive lineman after practice here yesterday.
It's been like this since the first pre-season game when the Tiger-Cats drew 22,342 against the Toronto Argos. The league opener drew 25,712, followed by 27,664; 26,301; 27,891; 28,850; and then a 29,170 sellout for the Argos on Labour Day and 27,983 a week later. Last year the Tiger-Cats averaged less than 14,000 and they were counting feet instead of heads.
A GREAT STORY
What we're dealing with here is absolutely one of the best Canadian sports stories of the year.
You talk to the old football people, the longtime media men who have watched the city, which was once the capital of Canadian football to the extent that everybody agreed this was where to put the Hall of Fame, and they marvel about what has happened.
New owner Bob Young, a Hamilton native who became a computer software multimillionaire, has made it happen. Not just by buying the team, but with words followed by actions.
Young, who lives in South Carolina, did his homework before he took the team out of receivership. And the No. 1 thing he found, despite what everybody had told him, was that there still was a Hamilton, that under the surface there was still an identification with the team.
When he bought it he delivered one message which won him the hearts of Hamilton.
"You don't owe us a thing. The city doesn't owe us a thing. If you don't come to our games, it's our fault," he said.
He bought a $3-million video scoreboard with his own money. Didn't ask for a cent from the city. He also bought five scoreboards and placed them at local high school fields.
He sold the concept of everything in the city -- when it comes to football -- being married.
Then he hired former Eskimos running back Greg Marshall from McMaster University here -- the first Canadian to go from a Canadian college team to a CFL team -- as head coach.
Even Marshall agrees that his hiring helped create the scene here. He was Hamilton.
"I think you're right. I think it did help a little bit with people who had started following football at McMaster. We had 17,000 for a Yates Cup game in Ivor Wynne. When I was hired I think a lot of those people decided to go back to the Tiger-Cats."
That said, Marshall, like eight-year-man Hack, spends each day amazed at the transformation of the town.
"I feel the same way he does. Everywhere I go, every street post, it seems, has one of those banners. They're everywhere. And everybody is talking abut the Tiger-Cats again. All of a sudden there's a real pride in the team again. To be honest, when you are a team just fighting to get into the playoffs, it's pretty remarkable.
"I think a lot of it was just timing. I think the city was just ready for it. Hamilton just needed someone like Bob to come along. He's in it for all the right reasons and everybody can see that."
Young insisted the training camp be moved back into Hamilton from Brock University. All the seats were painted. Bathrooms and concessions were upgraded.
The office staff went from five to 26. And they went to work selling Hamilton on a three-year investment in season tickets, sponsorship and corporate tie-ins.
"When I got here in November there were five employees," saihas a skin-fold test performed on him by U of A student Tina Fergoal was to create a stable business environment -- to sell Bob's vision of the club. Our season tickets went from under 10,000 to 15,800. Sixty-two per cent of those were sold for three years. All our corporate sponsorships were sold for three years. Bob's vision was to sell stability.
WHAT ABOUT BOB?
"Bob's vision resonated with the fan base. It's been fun and it's been terrific to see. We're averaging 27,600, our corporate support has doubled. Now we're well on our way to making this a workable business."
Marshall, who took over a 1-17 team, says having the town into it again makes it a lot easier to coach. Players come to work feeling good about the team and the town.
"It's just great to be a Tiger-Cat now," said Hack.