Leading the Argonauts’ Latest Voyage

Canadian football has seen some low points in the past several years, but the Toronto Argonauts’ new president and CEO, Michael Copeland, is looking to change all of that with dramatic rebranding that puts the city at the forefront

Photo by Michelle Gibson

With 143 years under its helmet, the Toronto Argonauts is North America’s oldest professional football club. However, the team has suffered some major setbacks in the past couple of decades because of larger issues that have surrounded the entire Canadian Football League (CFL).

Joining the team in September 2015, newly appointed president and CEO Michael Copeland is looking to change that with a strategy to build up and rebrand the historic club.  With his law experiences combined with the lessons he learned while serving as the president and CEO of the CFL, Copeland will be able to do things for Argo fans that haven’t been done before. Here, he shares with us his community-centric growth plans.

How has your first year as president and CEO been so far?
It’s been terrific. This has been an incredibly important strategic priority for the Canadian Football League. What I found with my previous role as the president of the CFL was that I didn’t have the ability from my position at the league to effect the change that was required in Toronto—specifically for the Argonauts. Coming here has allowed me to roll up my sleeves and really put initiatives in place to return the franchise to a position of prominence. We’ve been really building the foundation for the last six months, and the fans are responding extremely well. There’s momentum in the air, and we’re really excited for the season.

“I have the opportunity to build, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re looking ahead. This is about the new Argonauts. It’s about energy. It’s about having a respect for the past, but looking straight ahead and building.”

How has strategy changed since you stepped into this role?
The former leadership did a great job with the situation they had before them. The team was playing in a stadium that was suboptimal for football. The program didn’t have the ability to build the fan experience and development programs that are critical for its success. Even in 2014, the team had to play outside the stadium for several regular season games because of stadium conflicts. The goal was to stabilize matters in a very, very tumultuous, uncertain environment. I give that leadership team a tremendous amount of credit. I have the opportunity to build, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re looking ahead. This is about the new Argonauts. It’s about energy. It’s about having a respect for the past, but looking straight ahead and building.

Courtesy of CFL Enterprises
The Argonauts’ new home, BMO Field, will host November’s Grey Cup. “It’s the biggest sporting event in Canada every year, and more than half the country’s population will be tuning in to watch the game,” says Copeland. The game is broadcast internationally, so Copeland sees it as an opportunity to showcase everything the Argonauts are doing at the stadium. The team is planning to have a one-of-a-kind three-day festival leading up to the game. “It will be new and exciting, and done in a spectacular way that I don’t think anyone in the city or the country has experienced to date.” Courtesy of CFL Enterprises

What role does a new stadium play in building the brand?
We’re heavily focused on reimagining the fan experience. Fans today want a great game-day experience and to interact with one another—which has been an especially important aspect in attracting younger demographics. We can’t rely on the stadium itself, though. But the stadium allows us to build that foundation to build that type of fan experience.

Before, the Rogers Centre had fifty-five thousand seats that were suited largely for baseball, so the sight lines and in-game experience weren’t great for football. We also really didn’t have the ability or the space to create a tailgate at Rogers Centre. The new BMO Field will have the footprint to do that. We now have a twenty-five-thousand-seat outdoor stadium that’s just spectacular for football. It’s built within an area called Exhibition Place, which is essentially the fairground for the Canadian National Exhibition. The Argos used to play there until they moved to the Rogers Centre in 1989, so there’s a lot of tradition and history on the site—it’s bringing back a lot of memories for people.

How are you updating the experience for modern fans?
Our main priority for creating a great game-day experience is authenticity. It really has to deliver on the promise of what a fan experience can be. Within the stadium, we’re going to have the Argonauts stand for a NCAA-type experience. This allows us to attract multiple demographics and multiple fan groups. Normally, in marketing, you pick your target market, and you exclusively focus on that, but this allows us to be a bit more flexible because of who wants the “college game-day” experience. We’ve created a fan zone in our end zone area for “the loud and the proud.” At the opposite end of the stadium, we’re also creating a dedicated family section. We’ve also got corporate hosting facilities, so we’re being very attentive to the fans we hope to appeal to. The art here is that we have to be very deliberate, focused, and diligent in meeting the needs of our specific groups, and I think that the BMO Field and the brand positioning that we’re going to overlay will allow us to do that.

How are you meeting the specific needs of those different fan groups?
If you look at corporate groups and corporate fans, it’s really about having a great hosting experience in which business people can bring clients and host in a comfortable environment.

In terms of the twenty-something or millennial demographic, it’s giving them an amazing place to socialize with their friends. We’ve got great hosting areas, great communal social areas, and just a great tailgate that they’ve never experienced before.

For families with kids, BMO Field needs to be a very accessible stadium to get to with local transit. We need to be able to meet the needs of the family, which mostly means making it a safe environment. It’s one where you don’t feel threatened or at-risk by anything happening in the crowd. It’s affordable, so they can come back often. We want to create the idea of parents as heroes—create situations that allow for that and make it incredibly fun for the kids, eliminating any sort of uncomfortable situation. At the end of the day, we want to allow the parents involved to watch and enjoy the game.

More than A Team

The Argos have a long history of helping community-focused causes. Below are five notable programs:

The team’s signature program. The anti-bullying initiative helps more than one hundred Greater Toronto schools. Bullying experts deliver messages to students on how to identify and deal with bullying. The Argonaut players are very engaged, with team leaders accessible and eager to participate.

Recently, Copeland had a parent relay a story that epitomizes the program’s success:

“I had a parent call us. She told us of a situation that involved her son in a bullying episode in the school locker room. He saw a child getting bullied, and he took it upon himself to intervene, using the techniques he learned from the seminars to diffuse the situation. And he did it successfully and on his own initiative. The parent just called to tell us that the program had an impact and that it worked to change things on the ground. It’s been great for the team to give back.”

Supports the campaign to end women’s cancers, which is also a league-wide initiative.

Supports players regardless of sexual preference. Copeland and the entire CFL strongly believe that football is about merit. If you can play, you have a place in the league.

The team is on the board of this city initiative focused on rebuilding Toronto’s waterfront.

The Argos have been a part of the games in the Toronto area.

What about your efforts off the field?
In the past, the way fans interacted with the team was by simply watching the games. The focus has always been on the game itself. However, the only way our product was delivered was through things like the purchase of tickets or through printed news articles. With social media, we can deliver our product by reimagining what we’re about and what we’re providing. We’re building that community by putting our players in social situations and lifestyle situations that show them doing fun things outside of football. We produce and distribute that through social media, and I think it’s getting a lot of attention. It’s making our players more accessible.

We’re also focusing our visuals and branding materials on the experience of the game rather than what’s happening on the field. We want to show fans what it means to participate in an Argos game and be part of the Argonauts fan base. All of our inventory will be about crowd shots or shots from a tailgate. It’s going to show different ages and demographics having fun in the way sports fans haven’t experienced in Toronto before. It’s enhancing how they view players on the field, but it’s also creating consumable content for our fans. It’s expanding how we view who we are and what we’re delivering.

In the last few years, Canadian football has lagged in profitability—how are you bouncing back?
To put it very simply, the business model of the league made it really difficult for CFL teams to be profitable. It wasn’t a Toronto issue. It was something faced by all of our teams. The cost structure and the revenue structure were not aligned, so we did some things over the last few years at the league level that corrected that—things like salary caps and collective agreements with our players. The issue before has been the resources weren’t here to reinvest in things like brand development and fan experience to the degree required. Now, with the changes, we can. We have built the brand of the league primarily through television and a relationship with TSN to considerably increase revenues. With that, teams have had a real fighting chance to become profitable. With that profit, teams are now reinvesting in their own markets. They’re reinvesting in their people, their brands, and their facilities. There’s been about $2 billion spent on facility upgrades league-wide in the last several years, so that’s what’s turning it around.

The challenge the Argonauts face is that we have been a neglected, difficult market for quite some time. The league as a whole has changed the business model to allow teams to be profitable and successful. Now, it’s a rebuilding effort, and none of this will happen overnight. It takes a lot of hard work. We’ve got a really strong core group of fans, and our effort now is that we need to supplement them with new fans.

A lot of the initiatives that we’ve put in place, with affordable pricing and creating an aspirational view of the team, are going to need to be experienced before people buy in. We’ve had to get that momentum before we really showcase the product this season. It’s about reengaging the public on a broader scale. There’s a general receptiveness and interest in the Argonauts, but it’s somewhat fleeting at the moment because people haven’t been spoken to. We need to get out there and have a much bigger presence, and that’s what we’re aiming to do.

What do you want your legacy to be?
First and foremost, a love and respect of the Argonauts brand in the city. That’s really it. This team was incredibly important to the city several decades ago. It was a big part of the sports landscape here. Over the last few years, that has fallen behind a little bit. I really believe in what we do, in our players, and in our role in the community. I think it’s an incredibly fun and exciting sport. There’s no limit to how big this can become. Once you become successful, it’s about leveraging it in different areas and being creative and flexible in how you can bring the brand of the Toronto Argonauts to people in new ways. You see a lot of sports franchises branching out beyond the core business that they’re producing. That’s what we can do next. I want to bring football and the Argonauts back to a place where people love it, respect it, and embrace it.