The upcoming Grey Cup 2016 to be held in Toronto got me thinking about an article I wrote about the then-owner of the Hamilton Tiger Cats. This article was published in CPAmagazine in 2001.
By Bonnie Munday
THE ROTUND, ELDERLY MAN WEARING A BLACK BOWLER IS IDENTIFIED ONLY BY THE NAME ON THE BACK OF HIS SHIRT: Pigskin Pete. Positioned in front of the east stand at Ivor Wynne Stadium for Hamilton’s 2001 season home opener, Pete leads the boisterous crowd of nearly 20,000 in the time-honoured Ti-Cats chant:
Oskee We Wee, Oskee We Wa, Holy Mackinaw, Tigers, Eat ’em raw!
Pigskin Pete has been a Tiger-Cats mascot for half a century (this 27-year veteran is only the third person to take on the role), but the team itself has been alive for much longer. At 132 years and counting, it’s the oldest in the Canadian Football League and a source of pride in “Steeltown;’a city of more than 624,000 halfway between Toronto and Niagara Falls.”I just couldn’t imagine Hamilton without the Tiger-Cats,” says Sandy Arnott, 37, a bookkeeper, mother of one and lifelong, die-hard fan. To thousands of other Hamiltonians, the disappearance of the city’s only professional sports team doesn’t even bear contemplating.
Yet the unthinkable almost happened just a few years ago. With the economy in recession, big layoffs in the steel industry and a dismal team on Ivor Wynne’s artificial turf, the Ti-Cats were on the skids by 1993. That’s when CA David Macdonald entered the game.
From the office of the vice-chair at Brawley Cathers Ltd., a financial and investment consultancy in downtown Toronto, you can see the Toronto Stock Exchange and the banks of Bay Street – not an unexpected setting for a financier’s place of work. But inside David Macdonald’s office, the scene is a little different. On one wall is a huge colour photograph of a live, stalking tiger, and on the other, a bookshelf loaded with signed footballs.
“I’ve always been a sports fan,” says the plain-speaking, stocky 50-year-old. Macdonald played junior and university hockey, and still plays pickup hockey, hardball and softball, and touch football on some weekends. “But the last thing I ever thought I’d do is run a football team.” Nonetheless, he seems tailor-made for the job of Tiger-Cats chair, CEO and majority owner: soon after he bought the team, it was awarded the CFL’s Comeback Franchise of the Year award, followed by Franchise of the Year. The city of Hamilton even presented the new owners with the keys to the city. And, oh yes, they won the Grey Cup for the first time in 13 years.
“One of the things that strikes you about David is his enthusiasm and the passion he has for the product,” says former CFL commissioner Larry Smith, now president and CEO of the Montreal Alouettes. “He had the courage and determination to take a troubled franchise and try to move it forward.”
Until 1991, however, Macdonald was more accustomed to financing movies, Broadway plays, oil and gas, mining and manufacturing ventures. Then, he was hired as investment adviser for an expansion team of the National Hockey League – the Ottawa Senators. He ended up creating the franchise group (consisting of two financial institutions plus some individuals, including himself) that made the team’s first payment to the NHL.
So in 1993, when it was clear that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were in trouble, Larry Smith thought of Macdonald. The then-CFL commissioner had heard of Macdonald’s success as a dealmaker and desperately needed someone to turn the football franchise around.
“We were on the verge of bankruptcy,” recalls Roger Yachetti, a Hamilton lawyer who at that time headed the community– based group that had taken over the Tiger– Cats when the previous owner made it clear he wanted out. The group had quickly gone through the $750,000 line of credit the region had provided the year before. “My office was a media scrum most days: Yachetti says, referring to the dark era when he was making regular pleas to the people of Hamilton to buy tickets. “I was very vocal about our need for greater support from the community – that without it, it was game over.”
Smith brought Yachetti and Macdonald together, and Macdonald came on board, initially, for a review engagement. “I reviewed the finances,” Macdonald explains. “I looked at cost structure and revenue streams, and figured if it was properly structured, it could work.” He also liked the salary cap the CFL had in place, and the fact that he could negotiate a favourable long-term lease on the Ivor Wynne Stadium. “So I went out and started to raise the money.”
Macdonald came up with something novel in the world of professional sports operations: he proposed investing in the franchise by way of a limited partnership, which he says allowed for much-needed tax deductions. As a result, he was able to raise $3.3 million in operating capital half of it his own, and half from other investors, who put up $150,000 per unit. “It wasn’t difficult,” he says. “This was an attractive financial proposal, with a good return guaranteed in the first year under the limited partnership agreement”
But two years later, with the money gone, he ended up exercising his option of buying the team for $1, which meant assuming a portion of its debt – by now $3.7 million. (The new ownership includes Torontonian George Grant, who has bought out all but one other minor investor to become co-owner and vicechair.) “I had to take it over to protect the initial investment,” says Macdonald. And that day in the spring of 1995 was the day the team’s fortunes began to rise.
“I think that, from the start, the new ownership brought a more businesslike approach to the club’s operation,” says Rogers Cable Inc. president and CEO John Tory, who was CFL chair at the time and commissioner from 1997 until last season. Not only did Grant and Macdonald do a “very honourable thing,” in Tory’s words, by looking after a lot of the team’s past debts around the community, “they also managed to increase their revenue and decrease expenditures.”
That’s largely due to Macdonald’s cost– conscious approach, which he attributes to his CA training. “We count paper clips,” he says – and he’s not joking. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my profession, it’s that you can control costs but you can only guesstimate revenues. We control costs. And we’re always on budget or under– budget.” The new regime allows for few perks. “Coaches, players sometimes, once had unlimited long-distance phone bills. I mean, if each person spends $800 a month and you’ve got 50 people doing it, that’s $40,000,” says Macdonald. “There was tons of that kind of thing that we put a stop to.”
Travel costs for players, most of whom are from the United States, were also cut in half by flying them into Buffalo, New York, instead of Toronto. The airfare was that much cheaper. And, says Macdonald, all expense reports, even for lunches, now have to be approved by either Macdonald or Grant. “So we control costs, and we still put a professional product on the field,” he notes. Macdonald has even been known to chase ticket scalpers off stadium property on game nights: “Hey, they’re stealing from us,” he says simply.
Still, all that cost-cutting was just part of the equation. The new owners also needed to get the fans out to games. Just prior to Macdonald’s takeover, Roger Yachetti’s group held a “drive for ’95” at the end of the 1994 season. The goal was to sell at least 12,500 season’s tickets or the CFL would revoke the franchise. Even the players went knocking on doors. The team met its goal, but that didn’t do much for the Ti-Cats’ on-field performance. In both the 1995 and 1996 seasons, they posted eight wins and 10 losses, never going beyond the semifinals. The 1997 season was a disaster: two wins and 16 losses. Fan support was tenuous at best, which isn’t good enough in a city where there are other pro-sports choices within a short drive (to Buffalo in one direction and Toronto in the other).
“For years, Hamilton just wasn’t playing the kind of football the fans were used to,” Yachetti recalls, “and that’s hard-nosed, winning football. That compounded problems at a time when you had a lot of sports fans spending their entertainment dollars on, say, the Blue Jays instead.”
Grant Williams is one such Hamiltonian. “I had kind of slipped away from the team,” Williams says, “even though I’d been a lifelong fan.” As a boy, Williams and his friends sold pop at Ivor Wynne so they could watch the games for free. “In the early and mid-’90s, the Toronto BlueJays were hot, and the Ti-Cats were brutal,” says the 47-year-old jeweler. “I guess my friends and I became more interested in seeing the Jays play.”
It was time for a shake-up. After the disastrous 1997 season, Macdonald hired Ron Lancaster, a CFL quarterback legend and Hall of Famer who had been working wonders coaching the Edmonton Eskimos, and added receiver Darren Flutie and quarterback Danny McManus. “And,” says Macdonald, “you know what? We bounced back and went all the way to the Grey Cup the very next season, which is unheard of.”
That year, the team lost to the Calgary Stampeders on the last play of the game. Not to worry; they won the big prize the next year, in 1999. The 2000 season saw the team plagued by injuries (although they did make the playoffs), but 2001 was looking good at press time. All of which means the fans are coming back – Williams included. “I’m going to at least six games this season,” he enthuses, adding that he even went to a preseason game.
Clearly, the new ownership has hit on a winning formula. And successful play makes for a happy owner. “I’m excited,” Macdonald says. “It’s taking longer than I thought to make a good profit” – though neither he nor anyone else will reveal just how much the franchise made last year and while he says he isn’t in it to make a fortune, Macdonald is convinced it’s going to be “a heck of an investment.”
Despite his insistence that he got into this thing “strictly as a business decision,” one doesn’t have to look very hard to see that there must have been more to it than just good numbers: David Macdonald simply loves the CFL, and always has. Born in Montreal, Macdonald was an Alouettes fan from an early age, but when the family moved to Ottawa, his only way of staying close to the game was to watch the now-defunct Rough Riders games. Working at Lansdowne Park was a way to see them for free. “I sold hotdogs in the stands as a kid, then moved on to parking cars, and in university I was an usher,” says Macdonald, who earned his BCom at Carleton and an MBA at Queen’s.
Even his first date with Joanne, his wife of 24 years, took place at a football game. The young couple went to see the Toronto Argonauts at Exhibition Stadium. “She invited me,” Macdonald insists. “I spent the first half of the game explaining the most basic rules to her,” he recalls. She was nodding all the while, but by the third quarter she seemed to have caught on awfully quickly, and was hollering out plays to the guys on the field. “Well,” Macdonald says with a laugh, “that’s when I realized that I was set up. It turned out that not only was she already a big football fan, her boss owned the Argos!”
Joanne loves football still (though she left her job as executive assistant to John W.H. Bassett long ago to become a full– time mother), and she accompanies her husband to all the Ti-Cats games. In fact, with their son and daughter both away studying commerce at Queen’s University, watching sports has become the couple’s main pastime – and David’s obsession. “I’m a sports fanatic,” he admits. “Hockey, football. Some people like music, some like the arts, some have cottages. My hobby is sports – especially CFL football. It’s truly Canada’s game.”
He’s got a point. The CFL’s Grey Cup is the oldest continuously contested trophy for Canadian professional championships. And the league is the only one with all– Canadian teams. In fact, if the Ottawa Rough Riders were to re-join the CFL fold (which seemed very likely at press time), the league would have nine teams which is the same number of teams that the NHL, NBA and MLB have in Canada combined.
Canadian football wasn’t always looking so strong. While the league has long been solid in the west, the east has struggled in recent decades to retain fans in a market with lots of pro-sports choices. And, claims Macdonald, who as a franchise owner is one of eight on the CFL’s board of governors, the league “lost a generation of fans.” One reason, he says, was that for a period in the mid-’80s, it blacked out TV broadcasts of games in the Toronto– Hamilton market, with the intention of drawing more fans out. “That backfired. People watched NFL instead.” And the league’s experiment with bringing US cities into the CFL in the mid-’90s was not only short-lived, “it was a black mark on us,” Macdonald says, because the CFL ended up losing some traditionalist fans.
But now the CFL is experiencing a rebirth. The league’s commissioner Michael Lysko points to the numbers: “The television ratings are up this year, our sponsorships are up, virtually every in-stadium audience, all are up significantly,” he says. “And look what happened in Montreal.” The Alouettes almost disappeared a few years ago, and now every game is selling out. Not incidentally, it was David Macdonald who played a big role in ensuring that team’s survival, going to Montreal on behalf of the CFL to hammer out a resolution to the team’s cash-flow problems. “Regina, Calgary, Vancouver,” continues Lysko, “with the exception of Toronto, the level of fan interest in this game hasn’t been as strong in many, many years.”
Maybe people are rediscovering a pro sport with an old-fashioned appeal, in which players earn working wages (the average is C$60,000, compared with the NFL’s US$1.2 million). Or maybe some fans of gridiron football have realized that Canada’s version is simply more exciting than its NFL counterpart. The CFL game has only three downs and a wider, longer field, which allows for more motion. “A star defensive back from the NFL might not cut it here because he’s used to playing on a smaller surface,” contends Macdonald. And, he says, the fact that the next play must be called within 20 seconds versus the NFL’s 40 makes for better value because fans get more action. “NFL football is boring,” he adds with a smile. “We call it the No Fun League.”
And what does he say to critics’ claims that the CFL is full of NFL rejects? “Well, it’s partly true, but that’s a good thing,” says Macdonald, explaining that the NFL gets to choose the top 2% of the 10,000 or so graduating football players a year in the United States, while the CFL gets the next 1%. “Most of our players were the best athletes in their state when they graduated from high school,” he claims. Also, NFLers who play a fourth season automatically get a pension, so the league sometimes cuts them for that reason and they may end up playing here. (Meanwhile, the NFL maintains its right to grab CFLers in their option year, in the off season.)
“We have great guys who play for the love of the game,” Macdonald says. “Nobody’s earning $5 million a year and then refusing to sign an autograph. Players are out there in the community, they’re going to see kids in the hospitals. There isn’t one I’ve ever known who I wouldn’t be proud to have as my own son.’
The league south of the border generates hundreds of millions of dollars with the help of lucrative sponsorships, as well as, says Macdonald, betting on the games in Vegas. “Take away the gambling,” he contends, “and I’m not sure the NFL would do that well. In the CFL, the number-one goal is to get more fans out. So it’s a good sign if television ratings are up (in fact, in Canada, Grey Cup overall ratings last year beat those for the Super Bowl) because that translates later into fan turnout. “We have to somehow take that next step from the closet CFLer who watches it on TV, to `bums on the seats,’as we call it,” says Macdonald.
The changing fortunes of the CFL are due in part to Macdonald’s efforts. John Tory credits him with having helped the league reduce expenditures and make a profit. “As a governor, David took an interest and spent some personal time on those numbers,” says Tory. “The year I became commissioner [ 1996], we were having to make some significant budget changes to rebalance the operation, and he helped us identify almost on a line-by-line basis, where we had to change to improve financial performance. And, in Tory’s words, the proof is in the pudding: “The league has been able to once again distribute money to teams. And David was a real leader in that process.”
The current commissioner is just as pleased to have Macdonald as an owner. “David is one of the reasons I have a lot of confidence in this league,” says Michael Lysko. “He’s absolutely passionate about the game, and he’s very creative. He’s always got different ideas. ” And he and George Grant play fair, Lysko says, referring to the CFL’s salary cap of $2.3 million per team. The Tiger-Cats stuck to it without question. “I have a lot of respect for that,” says Lysko. “David knows that being financially responsible is part of the reason why we’re coming out of the funk we were in.”
In Lysko’s words, what Macdonald has achieved in Hamilton has been the result of good, honest hard work. “David has put his hard cash down but he also put in his blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “He and his partner have revitalized interest in football for the city of Hamilton. You don’t win the Grey Cup without sacrifice. David knows that – he’s wearing the ring.”
David Macdonald remains optimistic about his team’s future but realizes it’s an evolution – one he’s willing to help orchestrate. “One thing we’re doing is trying to grow minor football in this region,” he says. “Because if you don’t play a sport, you don’t follow a sport.”
As for the larger picture – the future of the CFL – Macdonald takes a moment to reflect. His prediction is blunt: one day, the CFL may be the only pro league with any teams in Canada. “There’s nothing else left besides the CFL that’s truly ours,” he says emphatically. “They’re our rules. We’ve given hockey away to the Americans and the Europeans.
“Being a CFL franchise owner is my contribution to Canadiana,” adds Macdonald. “And in my belief, we Canadians should be patriotic. We should stand up and be counted.”
If that means getting your bum on a seat for a CFL game and screaming oski wee wee along with Pigskin Pete, it seems like a small price to pay to keep a little piece of Canadian heritage around maybe even for another 132 years.
Bonnie Munday is a freelance writer based in Toronto.