A handful of the Box J Boys, decked out in hard hats and kilts, proclaimed to their new seatmates that section 103 would be known as Guelph’s Box J and got a resounding chant of “Oskee Wee Wee.”
A black plane flew low over the full stadium to drop gold streamers on the crowd as if to baptize it Tiger-Cats territory, and a voice thundered over the loudspeaker: “It’s taken a lot of work, but we’ve turned Alumni Stadium into Tiger Town.”
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats needed a home for the 2013 season while Ivor Wynne Stadium is being replaced. After a deal with McMaster University didn’t pan out, the University of Guelph took on the challenge of playing host to the CFL team and its attendant fans, traffic, tailgating, media and national TV audience.
Skeptics wondered how a small Canadian Interuniversity Sport football stadium could be reconfigured and what the ambience would be like in a venue with half the capacity of a typical CFL stadium. How would Guelph embrace the team, and would the fans from Hamilton make the trek some 50 kilometres northwest?
The university hopes the partnership shines a national light on its campus, while the Ticats’ $500,000 contribution to the school will go toward improved recreation facilities. The city is making efforts to draw fans downtown. The Ticats are embracing the cozy atmosphere and want to attract new fans in the area.
The team’s preseason game on June 20, a 52-0 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was a rehearsal. Sunday’s home opener against the Edmonton Eskimos will be the real test.
“I’ve had more fans stop me tonight to tell me what a great experience they’re having than I’ve had in five years at Ivor Wynne Stadium,” Scott Mitchell, president of the Tiger-Cats, said at the preseason game. “They didn’t know what to expect, but there has been a resounding enthusiasm for the experience here so far.”
The University of Guelph stadium had fixed seating for 4,100, with space on the grass for another 3,500. To play host to the Ticats, the school added temporary bleachers for a total capacity of 13,000, with tented boxes on top for media and sponsors. The stands were built above a row of evergreen trees.
Organizers extended the grounds of the stadium to accommodate the bigger crowd, including a green space for fans to mingle and tents for concessions. Trailers set back from the stadium act as locker rooms, creating an impromptu path where fans gathered to high-five players running to the field.
“This is something we’ve all felt before, the excitement of playing on a university campus,” Ticats quarterback Henry Burris said. “Guys came here and got comfortable and made this home. We loved walking down with the fans on both sides. That got us pretty excited to have the fan involvement like that.”
The Ticats have been blitzing Guelph for months, working with businesses, restaurants and minor football teams, partnering with festivals and planning game-day street parties with the city. Guelph buses will have “Go Ticats Go” signs and bring fans to games for free. Banners are hung around the city of 122,000.
Alumni Field has kept its red-and-black checkered end zones and the Gryphons logo emblazoned at centre field. Gryph, the red-feathered Guelph athletics mascot, dances about with Stripes, one of the Ticats mascots.
Scheduling the CFL games at a busy university was tricky, as was providing enough parking. Tickets are sold from a trailer, and row upon row of portable toilets are a reality of the temporary home.
“It’s kind of like going on a camping trip,” Ticats fan and Box J Boy Jarrett Harris said with a laugh. “It’s a very intimate stadium. It’s like waiting for your mansion to be renovated, so you have to live in your mom’s basement, but her basement is a really cool man cave.”
Some Ticats fans say some of Guelph’s restaurants have called them personally, hoping to be their postgame hangout.
The preseason game was nearly sold out, and Guelph police practised ushering traffic while their chief, Bryan Larkin, tweeted a welcome to fans. Spectators walked through campus, past the scholarly stone architecture, such as Johnston Hall and its sprawling green lawn, the social hub.
“Fans will walk past some of our most cherished buildings, and we want them to feel the city’s sense of community and showcase that we can host events like this well,” said Brenda Whiteside, the university’s associate vice-president, student affairs. “With a band playing and people sitting in the grass enjoying food before the game, it’s a unique vibe, like a festival environment.”
While some Hamilton fans relish the road trips, others are disgruntled about their team playing elsewhere. Mitchell said 60 per cent of season-seat holders renewed or took a five-pack for 2013, while 20 per cent to 30 per cent said they’ll attend single games. But fans “in the thousands” from Guelph, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge have bought season seats, as have local businesses.
“We’re so pleased with the partnership,” Whiteside said. “We want people to come to Guelph for an event, not just for a game.”