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A Saskatchewan Roughriders fan wearing a watermelon on her head cheers on the team during first half CFL football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The Canadian Press

The fans will be wearing watermelon hats and enough green body paint to camouflage an army. They'll be decked out almost exclusively in green and white, and some will have paid online resellers an average of $155 a seat for entry into the Saskatchewan Roughriders' game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers tomorrow at Mosaic Stadium.

A dozen years ago, the Roughriders survived by penny-pinching and praying for strong walk-up crowds on game day. Now, Riders mania is in full bloom and the franchise's business model has become the envy of the CFL.

No club moves merchandise like the Riders; their sales exceed the other seven CFL clubs combined. The game-day lineup at the stadium's Rider Store usually stretches out the door onto the Taylor Field grounds and around the tent erected to add space for customers.

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"I've always felt Saskatchewan was a special brand, like the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs," Roughriders president Jim Hopson said. "There's something about that 'S' that reaches to the heartstrings and generates pride."

Hopson, who became the club's first non-volunteer president in 2005, has a much different mandate than his predecessors. Instead of being preoccupied with franchise survival, he is consumed with growing the business and reinvesting the approximately $1.7-million profit generated by the club in each of the past two seasons.

Hopson is sitting in the Riders' new downtown offices in a refurbished bank building. The need for more retail and ticket space crowded the executives out of the stadium's offices at Taylor Field.

Just down the road, the club is renovating a former grocery store into a new player-workout facility. The team just announced a third Rider Store outlet will open this fall in Saskatoon, in addition to the two in Regina.

And then there is the biggest development of all, the proposed construction of a $350-million dome stadium to be built in the heart of Regina.

The franchise nearly went under at the end of the 1996 season, buried in debt. As in most comeback stories, there are several elements responsible for what's occurred since.

The biggest change began in the late 1990s, when members of the organization began to question the traditional volunteer-based structure underpinning the community-owned franchise's operation.

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"Because the club lost money, it was felt it had to be volunteer-driven and supported by a small number of professionals," said Tom Robinson, who served as a board member during the late 1990s and president from 2001 to 2004. "My view was that maybe that wasn't the right model. We had become the poor sister in the league and always worried about survival.

"In '97, we had a telethon to help the club survive. That was my first year on the management committee and I said, 'We don't want to go through that again.' We had a long tradition of football in Regina, but also a long tradition of mediocrity in business and on the football field."

The telethon, coupled with a $3-million loan from the NFL to the CFL and the Roughriders making a surprise run to the 1997 Grey Cup game (a 47-23 loss to the Toronto Argonauts), helped keep the franchise going.

In 2001, Robinson started putting his ideas into motion. The Roughriders adopted a model from the NFL's Green Bay Packers, selling public shares and allowing shareholders to elect a board of governors. The club also hired its first full-time president and chief executive officer and designated full authority on football matters to a general manager.

"The key thing was to … operate as a corporate entity instead of a mom-and-pop operation," Hopson said. "We'd always been a volunteer-run organization, so that was a huge shift to be staff-run and volunteer supported."

Hopson identified three areas of opportunity on the business side: game-day sales, sponsorship and merchandise.

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"We were investing heavily in the operations, new video board, locker room, new turf, trying to grow the business and make it more of pro-football operation," Hopson said. "And it's created a different feeling around the team because people say, 'They're a successful business.'"

In conjunction, the province's economy began to pick up just as the team started winning, culminating in November of 2007, when Saskatchewan captured its first Grey Cup in 18 years and just its third in franchise history.

With the proper business structure in place to harness the emotion coming off that victory, the Riders have continued - much like the province as a whole - to think big for the future.

"There is a relationship between what's happened with the Riders and the attitude in the province," Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said. "It was three days after our government was sworn in that my first official job was to go the [2007]Grey Cup in Toronto.

"The province had already started to show some momentum. [The Riders]were like a catalyst for even more energy and enthusiasm that we continue to have. People want to talk about how strong the province is and then the talk turns to football. Saskatchewan and the Riders seem to be inextricably linked."

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