From Alabama to Washington state, it’s not hard to fill a football stadium with rabid fans for a major U.S. college or high school game.
But in Metro Vancouver, the famed Friday Night Lights are often illusory. For decades, the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and Simon Fraser University Clan gridiron squads have struggled to draw the large crowds and dollars needed to operate successfully.
Yet, in the past two years, the Thunderbirds have generated millions of dollars in new revenue through closer ties with business. However, progress is not as evident at Simon Fraser University (SFU), where any efforts to build closer ties between companies and the football program are being kept out of the public eye.
UBC’s entrepreneurial approach
David Sidoo, a mining and oil and gas entrepreneur and former University of British Columbia (UBC) player, gets much of the credit for UBC’s recent success.
In 2014, he launched the 13th Man Foundation, which raises money just for the football team, after former UBC president Stephen Toope launched a controversial sport review designed to determine the financial viability of the school’s then 29 varsity teams.
“To be honest with you, I was a little bit worried about my particular sport, football,” said Sidoo, 57, a defensive back and kick returner for dominant Thunderbird squads in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “It was the most expensive sport in the [athletic] department. It wasn’t doing well. … There was a big black cloud over it.”
Sidoo, who also played in the Canadian Football League with Saskatchewan and B.C., formed the foundation with former UBC teammates, friends and business leaders to secure the T-Birds’ longevity.
“Basically, it was premised on the fact that we would build a strong alumni, would raise capital and bring our ideas and business ideas to the university on how to market and create a different kind of culture,” said Sidoo.
The foundation’s business plan included recruiting a top coach in Blake Nill, who led the club to unexpected Vanier Cup and conference titles in his first season in 2015 after building powerhouses at the University of Calgary and St. Mary’s Univeristy. Other foundation goals involved raising funds for player bursaries, new equipment, Thunderbird Stadium upgrades and covering the whole cost of a new academic centre, which has since opened, for football players only.
“We put a five-year plan together where we were going to raise $400,000 per year for five years for $2 million, and we’ve blown past that,” said Sidoo.
The foundation has secured sponsorship commitments of $700,000 to $750,000 per year, or just under $4 million for the five-year period, he said. The money supplements funds provided by the university.
Now, Sidoo dreams of building a football-based “marketing machine” that taps into UBC’s 50,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff. He is targeting tech, automobile, smartphone and real estate development companies that want to capitalize on a younger demographic group.
“You have to be actually very specific in targeting,” he said, adding the support won’t last long otherwise.
UBC is following the strategy adopted by schools like Calgary, Laval, Montreal and Western, which have parlayed more funding from business groups into championships. Prior to last season, the Thunderbirds rarely made the playoffs over a two-decade span.
“I came here on the vision that we could be the University of Laval from the West Coast,” said coach Nill, who worked closely with business leaders at Calgary and St. Mary’s. “I’m a believer that [governing body Canadian Interuniversity Sport] can be revenue-generating. You just have to have the vision that it can be.”
Laval, a perennial powerhouse and multiple Canadian champion, operates its football program through a board founded by Quebec City entrepreneur Jacques Tanguay. The university’s Rouge et Or average 12,000 fans per game – a huge number by Canadian stands. Ultimately, said Nill, who worked closely with business groups at the U of C and at St. Mary’s, on-field success comes down to having the financial backing necessary to recruit and develop top players.
“The ability to garner success in any college sport, whether it’s in the U.S. or Canada, parallels directly your ability to generate capital through some means,” he said.
UBC athletic director Gilles Lepine, who moved west from Laval in 2015, noted the school and team can still do a better marketing and fundraising job. They have boosted crowds considerably at times, drawing about 4,000 for this year’s season opener and 7,000 on homecoming weekend, but attendance fell to 1,000 for the third contest.
SFU has a different game plan
While UBC trumpets its success in engaging the business community, SFU’s football program prefers not to. An e-mailed interview request to coach Kelly Bates was rejected by an athletic department spokesman who was copied on the message. SFU Football Alumni Association president Mario Luongo also declined to be interviewed.
But former Clan and BC Lions offensive lineman Angus Reid wondered why SFU is keeping its fundraising efforts and business connections under wraps. Reid would love to see the Clan generate “the same buzz and excitement” as UBC, which he called “refreshing.”
“There’s a massive difference right now in where the two schools are in terms of their success at re-engaging the fans, student body and the alumni,” Reid said.
Clan supporters hope an eventual move from Swangard Stadium to a proposed new on-campus facility – the plan for which has been mothballed due to funding roadblocks – will help revive the program. The club drew a reported sellout crowd of about 1,300 – using temporary seats – at Terry Fox Field, located on Burnaby Mountain, against Central Washington on Oct. 1.
However, Bob Molle, a former SFU offensive lineman who also competed in wrestling and won an Olympic silver medal for Canada in 1984, said it will take more than a new stadium to boost the team’s fortunes on and off the field.
“There’s never one silver bullet to making a program go,” said Molle, who is now a Victoria-based business coach, consultant and motivational speaker.