Game Time

Sara Moore is flanked by the “fully wrapped” train used in the CFL’s 100th Grey Cup game promotional tour.

Sara Moore is the Canadian Football League’s new VP of marketing—and she’s ready to play

Milan Kundera, the great Czech author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, once penned, “Business has only two functions—marketing and innovation.” But what supports this mutuality? What is it that makes marketing and innovation possible?

As vice president of marketing for the Canadian Football League, Sara Moore, culling her analogues from the aggressiveness of the gridiron game, believes competitiveness is the superstructure of the business world—a stance that allows for progressive innovation and marketing possibilities whose effects extend far beyond the end zone. But for Moore—who not only joined the CFL in October 2011, just as the league was kicking off its 99th Grey Cup season, but joined in a high-level position as a woman in a male-dominated enterprise—this is a metaphor that has been years in the making.

By the time Moore signed on with the CFL, she had already earned her stripes making assertive upward movements in comparable high-level marketing positions with companies such as Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting, Yahoo! Canada, and, most recently, Mobilicity. “From a career standpoint, the CFL wasn’t on my radar,” Moore says. “But I wanted to work with a Canadian organization; I wanted to work somewhere that had history and longevity; and I wanted a place that needed me and had a challenge. The CFL had it.”

Though Moore insists on the spontaneity of the decision—insofar as her movement into the CFL would be as a sports-marketing greenhorn—other signs in her story suggest that this role was not entirely due to Providence. Moore’s relationship with the game dates back to her childhood: her father, Peter Moore, was the president of the Toronto Argonauts in the late 1980s. “I grew up in Toronto going to Argonaut games and Grey Cup parades,” Moore says. “The game has always had an appeal to me, and that’s really important.”

As the Stanley Cup is to hockey, the Grey Cup is to Canadian football. Commissioned and so named by Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, Canada’s General Governor (1851–1917) in 1909 for a mere $48 (roughly $1,000 in 2013 currency), the 33-centimetre-tall sterling silver cup was originally intended for the senior amateur hockey championship—a position since held by the Allan Cup. Although football was Grey’s second choice, the cup—which celebrated its 100th anniversary during the 2012 season—has since risen to prestige in the Canadian sports world. Its award was paused from 1916 to 1918, due to the First World War, and then again in 1919, due to rule disputes, but it has since been awarded uninterrupted. With 15 wins, the Toronto Argonauts top the list for Grey Cup wins, though the Edmonton Eskimos, who have 13 total wins, also have the longest Grey Cup winning streak, winning five championships from 1978 to 1982. Game on.
As the Stanley Cup is to hockey, the Grey Cup is to Canadian football. Commissioned and so named by Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, Canada’s General Governor (1851–1917) in 1909 for a mere $48 (roughly $1,000 in 2013 currency), the 33-centimetre-tall sterling silver cup was originally intended for the senior amateur hockey championship—a position since held by the Allan Cup. Although football was Grey’s second choice, the cup—which celebrated its 100th anniversary during the 2012 season—has since risen to prestige in the Canadian sports world. Its award was paused from 1916 to 1918, due to the First World War, and then again in 1919, due to rule disputes, but it has since been awarded uninterrupted. With 15 wins, the Toronto Argonauts top the list for Grey Cup wins, though the Edmonton Eskimos, who have 13 total wins, also have the longest Grey Cup winning streak, winning five championships from 1978 to 1982. Game on.

Despite the longevity of the enterprise, the CFL, within the context of Canadian professional sports entertainment, has had a somewhat tenuous fiscal track record, running into near bankruptcy in the late 1990s as the league attempted to break into the US markets. This attempt for diversification, and other similar marketing tactics implemented by the CFL over the years, has tested the limits of the league’s marketability—a challenge further heightened by league records, which show that interest for the game reached an all-time high between 1977 and 1983. The most ever in attendance at a CFL game was at the Olympic Stadium in Montréal in 1977, with 69,093 packed in to watch the Toronto Argonauts defeat the Montréal Alouettes 20–14. Television viewership for the Grey Cup match reached an all-time high of 8,118,000 (33 percent of the Canadian population) in 1983, with Toronto defeating the BC Lions 18–17.

A statistic in this case, Moore—like many other Canadians of her generation—admits that despite her upbringing, she wandered from the league. “It was a lapse—that’s the only way to describe it,” she says. “That’s why, as I was coming into this position, I began to think of myself as ‘Exhibit A’ for what I wanted to change about this league. It only took me 10 minutes of watching a CFL game to get right back into it—to remember how great this game is.”

Moore has since taken this revitalized energy to launch some of the CFL’s most innovative marketing efforts to date. To promote the 100th Grey Cup game, which was held in Toronto this past November, Moore and the CFL launched an inventive promotional strategy via the 100th Grey Cup Train Tour. Partly funded by a $5 million federal grant, the train made 100 stops across the provinces to promote the game through a diverse, interactive multimedia experience. “It was about taking our league directly to our fans across the country,” Moore says. “We fully wrapped the equivalent of a 50-storey building—a lead locomotive and four cars—in the imagery of our game.”

This type of dramatic and unexpected initiative emphasized the importance of Canadian football by integrating CFL iconography with the very workings of the Canadian commercial and industrial infrastructure, reinforcing the game’s role within the Canadian sports enterprise. It’s the kind of innovation the CFL needs to keep abreast with other sports markets, and as Moore continues to oversee these innovations, the success of the Train Tour has shown that a fresh outlook can be invaluable to the vitality of an enterprise.

“I wanted to work with a Canadian organization; I wanted to work somewhere that had history and longevity; and I wanted a place that needed me and had a challenge. The CFL had it.”
—Sara Moore, VP of Marketing

Despite this early success, Moore’s induction into the CFL was not met without its share of dubiety. Bloggers and journalists expressed skepticism at Moore’s assignment, portending that a sports-marketing neophyte might not be able handle the rigours of a professional sporting enterprise. “The CFL has some of the most dedicated fans in the world,” Moore says. “But they can be critical of the referees—all of whom are extremely professional and experienced in the game—so I knew that there would be some skepticism about my position.”

Fresh though she may be to sports marketing, Moore has an experienced, well-rounded professional track record. Her background—which includes spending no more than five years at any of her previous positions (all showcasing progressively advanced responsibilities and senior titles) and a stint as a varsity hockey player—suggests a competitive disposition well suited to the rugged business of sports: a business that, like it or not, has long been a man’s game. “As a woman who has worked as an executive in a lot of different companies, to be a woman sitting around a table with all men is not unique for me,” Moore says.

Responding to the criticism associated with this dichotomy, Moore insists, “I don’t believe the people I work with see me as a woman at the table. They see me as a marketing executive who brings almost 20 years of experience, and they are judging me as they would judge anyone in this role.” For Moore, conference-room challenges in the workplace are due less to discrimination and more to one’s individual experience and how essential one makes his or herself in the business. “This is true across the board,” Moore says. “It’s not just sports.”

Sara Moore 2 High Res (2)
“A lot of what it takes to be not only a great employee but a great manager and a great leader is the ability to see yourself in a game, and the ability to take on a role and play it exceptionally. That’s critical.” —Sara Moore

Though Moore might not feel the pressure, the pressure is nonetheless there. Professional sports have long been male-dominated, such that even in recent history, “firsts” are being made; though the CFL has a progressive record in this regard, beginning with the assignment of Jo-Anne Polak as the general manager to the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1989. It wasn’t until 1999 that the NFL followed suit.

While some are quick to indemnify the politics of professional sports, Moore’s equal footing in the enterprise allows her to focus her concerns on what matters most to her: the fans. “Listening to our fans is one of the greatest things I get to do in this job,” she says. “Everything I do is focused on understanding and respecting the relationship the fans have with the game, and making sure that the brand reflects and resonates to those people and how they see their game.”

With the success of the 100th Grey Cup behind her, Moore looks forward to helping the CFL inaugurate its second century as an enterprise. “There’s a great opportunity for the CFL right now,” she says, “as we have the opportunity to engage new fans and introduce them to a game that is loved across the country.”