When he became the Saskatchewan Roughriders' first full-time, paid chief executive officer and president five years ago, Jim Hopson knew the CFL team was going to sell out one game a season.
Labour Day weekend has long attracted capacity crowds to Riders home games, but it wasn't many years ago their annual "classics" against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were the only contests that did.
Now, the Roughriders sell out virtually every game inside expanded, 30,000-seat Mosaic Stadium. Sparked by Hopson's passion, his business plan and the integrity of a life spent in Saskatchewan's education system, he has helped the Roughriders become one of the league's model franchises.
They have an annual operating budget of $30-million, reported a profit of $3.1-million in 2009, appeared in two of the last three Grey Cup games (winning in 2007), annually sell more merchandise ($7-million) than the other seven CFL franchises combined and - because it's a community-owned franchise - reinvest profits in things such as a players' workout facility that helps perpetuate success.
It's exactly what Hopson envisioned when he hired his first employee, former Riders teammate Steve Mazurak, as vice-president of sales and marketing and told him: "Shoot high."
"[Hopson's]really unflinching in his purpose," Mazurak said. "There was a time when I wanted that job. I applied for that job. When I see what he's done, what his commitment is, he's for sure the right guy for that job.
"He's a local guy. People see him as being able to deal with boards, he can walk into any executive boardroom and handle himself at that level while being a lunchbox type of guy who really cares about this organization. His financial acumen comes from a business acumen and he includes winning as part of that."
From the outset, Hopson wanted to improve the game-day experience for fans, so the Riders became the last CFL team to install a gigantic, video-replay screen in their stadium. He wanted to upgrade the on-field talent by hiring good "football people," create strong business partnerships, erase the long-standing image that the Roughriders were have-nots who needed charity, and to make sure the squad was well-behaved and well-represented at community events.
Most important: Increase the season-ticket base to 20,000 from 7,500; it's now at 25,000.
"There's a tremendous amount of goodwill for everyone associated with the team, the feeling that we can accomplish something, that this little team everybody thought was on death watch - 'When is the team going to fold?' 'When's the next telethon?' 'When's the final nail going in the coffin?' - is a franchise people point to with respect," Hopson said.
It's easy to forget the Roughriders nearly folded in the mid-1990s. By 2001, they had $2.74-million in debt, before their financial shortcomings were forgiven by the Saskatchewan government.
They went 19 seasons (1988-2007) without a home playoff game and dealt with the public relations nightmare of having a player, Trevis Smith, sent to prison for knowingly exposing two women to HIV. Last year, general manager Eric Tillman left the team after pleading guilty and being given an absolute discharge on a summary charge of sexual assault.
Hopson, a Regina product who was an offensive lineman for the Roughriders from 1973-76, was hired as CEO in 2005, the year Smith was charged.
A long-time teacher, principal and school board administrator with an education degree from the University of Regina and a masters degree from the University of Oregon, Hopson's hiring may have seemed an imperfect fit for the team. Not so. Hopson believes it prepared him for the job.
"People ask me how I learned to handle all that stuff, like Trevis Smith and Roy Shivers [the Riders flamboyant GM Hopson fired in 2006) and Eric Tillman," Hopson said. "You know, if you stand in front of an angry mob of parents because you're talking about closing their school, you're learning about being transparent and straightforward. The Riders aren't as important as people's children, although they may be a close second in some cases."
Hopson has become the face of the Riders. He did that consciously at first, stepping forward to deal with the issues surrounding Smith and Tillman. Now, his bald pate, silver beard, husky frame and broad smile are sharing high-profile time with quarterback Darian Durant and coach Ken Miller.
Hopson, a divorcee with two grown children who is engaged to marry Brenda Edwards, attends social events throughout Saskatchewan, representing the team at everything from small-town banquets to government press conferences to announce the province is directing $325,000 to the team for selling - 13,000 so far - Riders-festooned licence plates during their 100th-anniversary celebrations.
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