Revived Ravens winning over sponsors

Steve Fretwell laughs when reminiscing about the glory days of Carleton Ravens football in the mid-1980s.

Now a successful insurance executive in Toronto, Mr. Fretwell quarterbacked the Ravens at a time when they challenged for conference championships. It was the high-water mark of a program that was not exactly renowned for its success on the field, one that played and practised in facilities made of “cinder-block walls and duct tape,” the former QB says with a chuckle.

But the winning, like the football program itself, wouldn’t last. Mr. Fretwell graduated in 1989, the Ravens descended back to the basement of the standings, and by the dawn of the new century the team – like the city’s first CFL franchise – had been consigned to the scrap heap of history.

Today, pro football is back in Ottawa, and so are the Ravens, sporting a 1-0 record after defeating Waterloo 33-14 Monday.

The gleaming wood facade of TD Place aside, there might not be a better symbol of the city’s football renaissance than the $3.5 million worth of new facilities that opened on the Carleton University campus last year.

Players dress in spacious surroundings that would put some CFL rooms to shame. The offices of head coach Steve Sumarah and his offensive and defensive co-ordinators feature the latest in video playback equipment, where the staff can break down film on HD screens. The lobby is lined with computers for players to review game footage, or they can kick back and relax on leather couches after a tough workout at the nearby state-of-the-art, high-performance gym.

All of it was paid for by a non-profit corporation, Old Crows Football Inc., which took out a loan to get the project done. A group of community members and former Carleton football players, the Old Crows are determined to give a new generation of student-athletes at the university a “CFL experience,” says J.R. Edwards, the team’s executive director.

“We wanted the country to take notice,” he says with a smile. “We wanted that ‘wow’ factor – both for students and for people here in Ottawa to go, ‘This is different.’”

Clearly, these aren’t your father’s Ravens. Still, this feel-good comeback story didn’t get written in a day.

The university itself had little appetite to revive the team with its own money after the Ravens folded in 1999. As far back as 2000, the Old Crows had been floating the idea of raising cash to fund the program privately.

Nine years later, former Raven defensive back John Ruddy, the president of Trinity Development Group and one of the men who spearheaded the CFL’s return to the capital, donated $2.5 million to kick-start the process. Carleton’s board of governors agreed to reinstate the program, provided the Old Crows could raise $5 million to get the team off the ground.

The group reached that target in 2011, and the Ravens returned to the field at Carleton’s Keith Harris Stadium last fall.

The team, with a roster full of 18- and 19-year-olds, went winless in eight games while being outscored a whopping 390-95. But it immediately captured the attention of the university sports world for its unusual business model.

Carleton's football program is funded entirely through alumni donations and corporate sponsorships. A couple of other schools in Canadian Interuniversity Sport get most of their operating cash for football from private sources, including Laval University, where the Rouge et Or have won a record eight Vanier Cup national championships since the program’s debut in 1996 and regularly entertain sellout crowds of more than 10,000 in Quebec City.

But Mr. Edwards, who was Budweiser’s senior marketing manager in Toronto before the Old Crows brought him in to oversee the team’s business operations last fall, says the Ravens face a much more daunting task than their Quebec counterparts.

Unlike Laval, Carleton’s program has to compete with two pro sports franchises, not to mention the rival University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, for the hearts – and wallets – of local businesspeople.

“When you try to get into the corporate purse strings, you’ve got to realize that 80 per cent of the money is going to go to the Senators because hockey is everything in Canada,” Mr. Edwards says. “The next 19 per cent is going to go to (the CFL’s RedBlacks). Then the next one per cent we’re going to fight for with the (OHL’s) 67’s … and everyone else in the neighbourhood, not to mention a bigger university down the road.”

The Ravens’ 2014 budget is about $1.2 million, he says, which is more than the CIS average of about $1 million, but a far cry from the more than $2 million the Rouge et Or spend annually. About 25 per cent of that, or $300,000, is coming from more than 20 corporate sponsors that include national brands like TD, Scotiabank, Pizza Pizza and Cineplex Odeon as well as locally based firms such as the Minto Group.

All of them were asked to sign for a minimum of five years, Mr. Edwards says, because the Old Crows wanted a steady, reliable source of funding.

“A lot of companies said to us, ‘Let’s do a one-year test and see what it looks like.’ We said, ‘We’d rather work with your competitors who are in for the long haul.’ Lucky for us, a lot of people are willing to take that pledge. It’s not big numbers, but it is commitment.”

Mr. Edwards says the Ravens will continue to lean heavily on alumni donors for funding, at least for the foreseeable future.

“We can’t think in the short term that we’re going to get a million dollars in corporate sponsorship,” says the Wilfrid Laurier University graduate, a good athlete in his own right who pitched for the Waterloo school’s varsity baseball team. “We’ve got to look at it and say, ‘How do we do a good job bringing corporate partners in and helping them build their brands on campus?’”

He concedes it’s not an easy task in a market with so many suitors for would-be corporate sports partners. But he thinks the Ravens, who played before packed houses of more than 3,500 at Keith Harris Stadium in 2013, offer potential sponsors an attractive option.

“We can help give them that captive audience (of students) to be able to connect to,” he says.

Theresa Forman, a senior strategist at local marketing agency McMillan, says backing a sport like university football is a way for firms to cultivate long-term customers.

“It’s a great opportunity (for sponsors) to get in front of tens of thousands of people in a year,” she says. “If you do offer a product or service that’s attractive to that demographic … it’s an opportunity for a brand to get in front of a consumer in that infancy space, when those young adults are starting to make their own brand choices. They’re going to start buying their own cars, they’re moving out, they’re buying their own food, they’re opening their own bank accounts. So if you have a brand that is trying to get into that very consumer brand-savvy, young target audience, it makes absolute sense.”

Mr. Fretwell, who sits on the Old Crows’ board of directors, believes more and more CIS football programs will ultimately be forced to adopt the Carleton model in an era where cost-conscious universities are debating the merits of continuing to fund expensive varsity sports.

Whether teams will ever generate big money from corporate sponsors, however, is still anyone’s guess, he says.

“I think the jury’s out on that,” Mr. Fretwell says. “We’ve got a lot to prove about this model. You’ve got to remember, we’re really creating something brand new here. We know that winning teams attract interest and that interest often means people want to get involved financially. I think that there’s some traction in the business community, depending on who the audience is that they want to reach. Ultimately, I think the majority of the funding will come from alumni.”

So far, Carleton graduates have contributed about $8 million to the Ravens’ cause – almost all of it from former players. Mr. Edwards wants to keep adding to that tally, with a long-term goal of having a fat enough war chest to match Laval’s $2-million annual football budget.

However, just two of the more than 50 donors to the program didn’t actually suit up for the Ravens, a number that has to rise dramatically for the team to reach its long-term funding objectives, he says. The problem, he believes, is many of the school’s 110,000 alumni simply aren’t aware the Ravens need their help.

“Every night I sit there and go, ‘How do I get to more alumni?’ Whatever that spectrum of support is, we’ll take it. But you can’t even do it if you don’t know.”

SIDEBAR

Carleton’s football team isn’t the only university sports program looking to score more cash from corporate sponsors and alumni.

On the same campus, former Ravens men’s basketball coach Paul Armstrong is working on drumming up more revenue for the school’s 14 other varsity teams in his role as senior development officer for recreation and athletics.

“It’s a very competitive landscape in (Canadian Interuniversity Sport),” says Carleton athletics director Jennifer Brenning. “You need to have enhanced programs in order to compete. We need that additional funding to be able to maintain our competitiveness at the national level.”

Ms. Brenning says the department is focused on beefing up funding streams for high-profile sports such as basketball, hockey and soccer. However, she says she doesn’t foresee a day when any of them will be paid for entirely with private and corporate money, as the football Ravens are.

“We’re a viable department and I don’t see that changing,” she says.

Unlike most other university athletics departments in Ontario, Carleton already relies heavily on outside sources of revenue to cover its $13-million annual budget.

The university, which doesn’t have a phys-ed or human kinetics department, funds only about 40 per cent of that total through a student levy. The athletics department generates the rest through methods such as hosting sports camps, renting its facilities and selling memberships to its gym and swimming pool.

Like Carleton, athletic departments across the country are turning more to businesses and private sources of cash to make ends meet.

Ryerson University in Toronto recently created a position similar to Mr. Armstrong’s, and in June, the University of British Columbia football team hired a general manager whose primary job is tapping into new sources of revenue.

“It tells me that schools coast to coast are taking notice (of Carleton’s model),” says J.R. Edwards, the executive director of the Ravens football program. “They went, ‘Wait a minute. This could be interesting.’ There’s money to be made, and it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that we can put right back into the program. It’s kind of like, ‘Why haven’t we always been doing this?’”