Sunday, August 30, 2015

North Of The Border

Just a week to go before football season--what's a fan to do?

Well, if you're on a business trip in Canada, and it's a Friday night, it's a foregone conclusion that I was headed to 60,000 seat Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta for a CFL game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Toronto Argonauts (the former team where Alex Buzbee played professionally after his one season with the Washington Redskins). And while I can say with some certainty I was the only fan wearing a cap which read "Georgetown Football", I learned a little bit more about what building a fan experience is all about.

1. First, make it convenient. Commonwealth Stadium is just two stops on the rail line from downtown--I was literally out the door of my hotel and in my seat in under 15 minutes. Better yet, the city of Edmonton declares free rail fares on the train to and from every home game. Given the lack of parking in that part of town, that's not only good business, that's good public policy.

2. Next, encourage people to tailgate...even in the stadium. Granted, the dimensions of a CFL stadium are longer and wider than an NFL or college field, but lacking any parking lot for such pre-game activities, the team has built a little corner of the end zone as a sideline club of sorts, along with four other locations for people with a little more to spend and enjoy a different game experience.

3. Involve the community. Friday night's game honored the Canadian military, and a group of soldiers and airmen brought out the Canadian flag at the national anthem, Granted, Canadians don't have the same display of nationalism as they do in the United States (or certainly not here in Texas, where we also sing the state anthem after the national one), but it was a nice show of support to the men and women in uniform.

4. Raffles. Long a staple of youth sports, the Eskimos have made it a way for one fan to win a small fortune. The premise is simple: for a $2 ticket, half supports youth football and half goes in the winner's circle. It's the "50/50" deal. By the fourth quarter, over $80,000 was up for grabs to one prizeholder. A month ago, a record $348,534 was given away. Granted, there 's some rules that work in Canada that may not work south of the border, but with that growing number on the scoreboard, it kept your attention:

And yes, that score was 10 to 1. The concept of the rouge makes as much sense to am American football fan as the infield fly rule can be properly explained to a cricket fan, but it's a staple of Canadian football scoring.

5. A family friendly experience. You won't find more courteous people than Canadian sports fans, period, Even with a pint or three, they take their manners seriously. I only heard one profanity uttered all night, from a middle aged woman who promptly covered her mouth and tried to look inconspicuous.

6. Lots of cheering. Despite it being a professional game, the Eskimos (and many CFL teams) have an atmosphere closer to a mid-tier Division I-A game rather than the NFL. Instead of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, the Edmonton Cheer team was more like a college group, with tumbling teams and signs urging the crowd to cheer back and forth. The t-shirts below were part of the "Support Our troops" campaign--in fact, two of the cheerleaders were active duty military:

Owing to the military theme that night, the halftime presentation featured the Canadian Royal Regimental Band. They opened with the 1983 pop song "99 Red Balloons", to which a passerby remarked, "Well, there's an ironic tune, isn't it?" (For the younger fans, this was probably the only Billboard Top 100 song in recorded history that sang about a nuclear missile exchange.)

7. A Fight Song. From that 10-1 score above in the third quarter, the Eskimos pulled away, not before another touch of U.S. college -style football: a fight song.

Chances are, unless it's Hail To The Redskins, you'd be hard-pressed to think of many pro football fight songs. ("Detroit Lions, Down the Field", anyone?)  At the end of the third quarter, the Edmonton fans had their version of the seventh inning stretch, with 81 year old broadcaster Bryan Hall chanelling his best Harry Caray. Here's Hall in a 2008 game:

8. Easy Come, Easy Go. Final score: 38-15. Good seats, good times.

The game was over, and people went home. Even the traffic signs were altogether Canadian:

But something that does relate back to Georgetown was the fans: they wore the colors. Lots of green and gold, lots of football shirts, jackets, and caps. Moms, dads, grandkids, you name it. And plenty for sale, too. No one went home without a little more green and gold.

Yet only at Georgetown could fans be given one week, and only one week, to order football gear at an inflated price, and that's it. Try finding a copy of the new jerseys at the bookstore, or even at the game. You won't see it. Or ask yourself why a design of the jersey is on the official site that looks nothing like either the old or the new jerseys (never mind they don't even have names on the jerseys):

In the end, you build a fan base by being authentic to their support, and authentic to their team. Georgetown doesn't have to be Alabama or UCLA to have a great fan experience. Does it?

Edmonton hasn't won a CFL title in 10 years. But the fans will still be back. If the Hoyas get drummed by Marist or Dartmouth, do they even come back in October?

Georgetown could learn a little from their friends up north that, win or lose, you make the home game experience an event, and welcome them back as eagerly as you welcomed them the first time: a week ago, a season ago, or 50 years ago. That's what a football game is all about.

"We're fighting on 'til every game is won
The green and gold is bold and when we're done
We'll tell the world we’re proud of Edmonton
And the Edmonton Eskimos."