Ottawa Rough Riders

Joanne Polak - General Manager - 1988-92

Dan Burke - A Game of Survival - Macleans - 14-08-1989

It was a typically embarrassing moment for a team that has become used to public mockery. Fifteen minutes before the Ottawa Rough Riders were due to start their first home game of the 1989 Canadian Football League (CFL) regular season July 19, the box office ran out of tickets to accommodate about 1,500 fans. As a result, the Rough Riders’ new general manager, Jo-Anne Polak—a 30-year-old marketing executive recruited to save the debt-ridden team—told her staff to let the fans into Lansdowne Park free, even though that meant forgoing almost $20,000. Said Polak, who became the first woman ever to manage a North American professional sports franchise when she took over the Rough Riders in December: “The first principle of business is kind service.
If I had to do it again, I would.”

Polak’s gambit seemed to pay off, at least in the shortterm. Despite losing their home opener to the Toronto Argonauts 21-17, the Rough Riders drew 23,695 fans to their next game at Lansdowne Park—600 more than the first and a substantial improvement over last year’s average of 19,411. And, although the team lost its first four games of the season after finishing last year with the worst CFL record ever (2-16), Polak said last week that she can steer the team out of its $1.9-million debt with good marketing and strong performances from a trio of star players she calls the “Three Amigos”—quarterback Damon Allen, placekicker Dean Dorsey and running back Orville Lee.

Polak’s business-minded approach to football management is indicative of a new leaguewide trend on which the CFL’s uncertain future rests. After the 1988 season, a year in which the B.C. Lions alone lost $3.1 million, the league’s board of governors recruited, as its chairman and chief executive officer, former Ontario attorney general and university football star Roy McMurtry. Together with the league’s new chief operating officer, Bill Baker, the former Saskatchewan Roughriders lineman-turned-general manager who revived the Regina team with such promotions as pre-game wrestling bouts, McMurtry secured the league a new $ 15-million TV contract with Carling O’Keefe Breweries of Canada. The agreement almost doubled each team’s 1989 broadcast revenues to $650,000. As well, McMurtry has brushed off corporate efforts in Toronto to win a franchise from the National Football League to play in the city’s new SkyDome. Said McMurtry: “We do not deal in
‘what ifs,’ especially when the NFL has made it clear that it does not intend to expand into Canada with or without the CFL.”

The bullish arrival of McMurtry and Baker in the league has been bolstered by upbeat new ownerships in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont., where local businessman Dave Braley took over the Tiger-Cats from the unpopular Harold Ballard, owner of Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Braley must now reverse the decline of a team that managed to draw an average of only 14,600 fans to its home games last year. His task will clearly be a more difficult challenge than the one facing Harry Omest, who bought the Argonauts from Carling O’Keefe last year. Indeed, Omest, whose franchise is enjoying almost doubled ticket sales since its move into the SkyDome this year, scoffed at Carling’s announcement last winter that it would seek an NFL team for Toronto with some executives of the Toronto Sun Publishing Corp. and a local real estate developer. Said Omest: “I hear there is a group being formed in Flin Flon and Moose Jaw. Maybe they can get together with Toronto and join the NFL as a conference.”

In fact, American professional football may arrive in Canada by 1991 via the World League of American Football. Last month, the NFL owners voted to launch the spring league, which could include teams in Mexico City, four European cities and Montreal, whose CFL team, the Alouettes, briefly known as the Concorde, folded in 1987. An investment group led by the city’s former executive committee chairman, Gerry Snyder, has already christened its team the Montreal Olympiques. As well, Snyder told Maclean ’s last week that he sees the World League franchise as a preliminary step into the NFL. Said Snyder, the chief architect of Montreal’s lobbies for a majorleague baseball team and the 1976 Olympic Games: “The French Canadians will take to American football. And if we can support a spring-league team, the NFL would be a strong possibility.”

Meanwhile, the eight-team CFL must continue to contend with its own problems. In Vancouver this week, the Lions’ board of directors planned to meet with Minnesota-born entrepreneur Steven Funk and rock promoter Bruce Allen to discuss selling the community owned team. The Lions have a total debt of $8.9 million and have not paid any 1989 rent at Vancouver’s domed stadium.

The situation may be even more serious in Ottawa, where the Rough Riders are trying to obtain $600,000 in private investment and a break on $260,000 in unpaid 1988 taxes to the Ontario government to stay solvent. And this week, Ottawa-Carleton regional council will vote on the team’s request for a $500,000 loan that could make or break the franchise. Just last week, the team secured rent concessions worth $440,000 from Ottawa city council.

Still, Polak, for one, remains optimistic. She applauded the Calgary Stampeders’ management, which offered to give those attending a recent game with Ottawa free tickets to a later game if Calgary lost. The Stampeders won the game by three points. Said Polak: “Every club has to do what it can to survive.” Clearly, that must include front-office strategies even more ingenious than ones on the field.

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