Making them roar again

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

Jamaal Magloire couldn't have looked more out of place if he had written the script himself.

He's standing next to Pigskin Pete -- a rotund little guy with a black bowler hat and the old Hamilton Ticats jersey -- and the two are engaged in the "Oskie Wee Wee" pre-game football fight cheer.

Magloire, the Toronto-born millionaire, he of the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, is copycatting the Pete-led cheer as more than 28,000 look on. The spectacle is ugly. It's how you would expect a 6-foot-11 centre to look trying to pull off an age-old football chant.

"That's a chant I'm going to take back to my team," Magloire said afterward, laughing.

The former Eastern Commernce high school basketball standout was taking part in the ceremonies at the start of the recent Hamilton-Edmonton Eskimos game at Ivor Wynne Stadium to raise awareness for a fund he created to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina and no one was complaining about supporting a good cause.

But taking a pro athlete from a bling-bling universe like the NBA and plunking him down in Ivor Wynne Stadium tells you something about what CFL football in Hamilton has become these days: It's the pro football's version of the Ancaster Fair, a family-oriented entertainment alternative for the people of Steeltown with a football game tagged on for good measure. And it's working.

The Ticats are averaging 28,284 fans this year, a tall achievement considering the team's 3-12 record and the front-office shuffles earlier this season. In August, the club shifted David Sauve from the president's post to the position of chairman of the board, promoted former special assistant in the club's business operations, Rob Katz, to interim GM and chief operating officer of business, and shifted the venerable Ron Lancaster from the GM post to senior director of football operations. By September, Sauve had resigned.

Moving David Sauve baffled some observers and provided the first real sense that the team wasn't repeating its successes of the previous year -- the first year led by the new management.

Even so, pro football in Hamilton is a far cry from the days when half-time entertainment featured a guy with a Frisbee and a dog. In those days, 20,000 fans was some distant, far-away fantasy, except if the hated Argos came to town.

Now there's a constant buzz, activity and promotion at the stadium. There's the splashy $2-million scoreboard, a platform for local corporate partners looking to spread their message. There are corporate tents at the west end of the stadium which allow hobnobbing business types to elbow one another for first dibs on the ball after field goals or single points. Some major local and national businesses are signed on as partners -- Tim Hortons, Dofasco, Westjet, Budweiser. There are flowers in the women's washrooms, paid for by a local florist.

And everywhere around the stadium are signs that the Ticats are reaching out to younger people to build a future fan-base, and not make the same mistakes of past management teams who lost a generation of fans in the 1980s and 1990s. There's a kids' corner where you buy your food. Upstairs in the stands, kids with black and yellow face paint scream in your ear, and two local minor football teams square off before the CFL contest.

"The traditional way of doing things was to spend all your money on the field," Sauve said. "Spending money on the event was something they didn't think was worthwhile."

The team's brain-trust, Chris Dean, executive vice-president and general manager, along with Katz, says sports marketing simply comes down to an attention to detail. Katz, an American, also had a huge success overseeing the sales, marketing and public relations for the PGA's Ford Championship at Doral in March, where attendance doubled over the previous year. A head-to-head showdown between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson helped, but Katz said the event was sold out weeks in advance.

"The similarities between (the Ticats) and that event are there," Katz said. "You plan early. You put your details in place and you execute early. You give people as much reason to be excited about the event as possible. That event had its first sell-out in 43 years. (Outsiders) said it was the Tiger effect. But Tiger doesn't declare (he's playing) until the week before. So if you're banking on selling all your tickets the week before, just like this situation here, you'd be dead."

Coming in, the Ticats management group had a season ticket-base of 10,000 and built that to around 17,000, but its focus on group sales is making the biggest difference. Out of the attendance for the Edmonton game -- 27,582 -- roughly 4,200 were group sales.

And the man at the centre of it all, the team's effervescent owner Bob Young, is working the home crowd as he has always done since he bought the team in 2003. People call out his name. He signs hats and shirts.

Dressed in his standard ball cap and going business casual, Young is the billionaire who has been a celebrity in the computer world: He co-founded Red Hat in 1994, the company associated with the Linux operating system, and now sits as president of the online publisher Lulu.com. He lives where the business is based, Raleigh, N.C., but Hamilton remains his hometown.

"I define myself as a Hamiltonian," he said.

As the story goes, Young acted on a challenge from the man who runs the local Hamilton Linux user group. He asked Young when he was going to do his civic duty and rescue the Ticats from financial ruin.

"As a Ticats fan, I was tired watching the team I cheer for be one of the worst-run teams in the history of modern sport," Young said.

It makes you wonder why the guy who took on Microsoft would come home to take on the Mickey Mouse Ticats in the Crisis Football League, but then again there was nowhere to go but up.

At Red Hat, Young helped master how you could get a little bit of money from a lot of different places. With the Ticats, at least in group sales, it's the opposite principle -- get a lot of money from one place. The meat is in the marketing.

"Bob knows how to deliver a message effectively towards a target market," Sauve said. The Young-led group has created a sports marketing company called MRX. You have a venerable brand, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, that Young and his team feel has a lot of steam behind it.

When you meet him, Young is self-deprecating, always quick to downplay his own contributions ("My job is to take credit for what these guys do," he said, pointing to Katz), putting what he says are the right people in place and letting them do their jobs -- but those who know him say there's another side when it comes to business.

"That's the way he wants you to think of him," said Jon (Maddog) Hall, executive director of Linux International and a friend of Young's.

"He gives people the aw-shucks, but with Bob, he knows what he did. He knows what he's worth. He left Red Hat with God knows how much money. If someone is that self-deprecating, they don't do something like (start Lulu.com). They go home with the money."

Sauve said Young's expectations of those who work for him are exceedingly high, and now the focus will centre on the porous on-field product.

Sauve was asked if his departure from the team had anything to do with not meeting Young's expectations, but he took the high road.

"I have a full-time job," he said of his work running a number of Tim Horton's franchises in the city.

Sauve was effusive in his praise of Young and his marketing prowess and said the two may work together again someday, perhaps if the city lands a Grey Cup. Young said the change came down because the front office structure was flawed.

"Too many people were responsible for overlapping parts of the decision-making process," he said.

Katz may see the interim tag of his GM's title removed, and acknowledges that his lack of experience in managing an on-field product has some purists antsy.

"People thought it was baffling because people have preconceived notions (about the GM's role)," Katz said. "We have great football people here. But I expect the same attention to detail as we've shown on the business side. We don't have the traditional GM's role here. My job is to help with the process. I'll never say 'pick this guy or that guy' but I will say pick a guy."

The same expectations apply in terms of Young's relationship with league commissioner Tom Wright and the head office. It has been said that Young was one of those owners who pushed for change at the top earlier this year, along with B.C. Lions owner David Braley, and others. But Young is not talking about it: "I don't comment on rumours and I still don't."

Sources say his displeasure had less to do with Wright personally and more to do with a need to push the head office into better performance.

"His vision is big, and he wants big results," Sauve said of Young.

Said Young: "Making good money here, that will take some brilliant work at the CFL level. You'll have to ask Tom Wright that one.

"If we can fix the team on the field and get the momentum in the community going and maximize our revenues, any CFL team can be modestly profitable on that basis."

The on-field product may struggle for the foreseeable future but one thing is for sure: The days of uncertainty are long past.

Young said he would be surprised if he doesn't turn a small profit by the 2007 season.

"If Canadian Tire closed their downtown store, people would be a little sad, but they wouldn't notice," he said. "This is an institution."


Videos

Photos