Cancelled CFL season ‘really hit’ former Riders president Jim Hopson on Labour Day weekend

Former Saskatchewan Roughriders chief operating officer Jim Hopson has unique knowledge about the Canadian Football League.

The people’s president led the Riders franchise from 2005 to 2014 while the green and white won two Grey Cups during his tenure, 2007 and 2013 on home prairie soil. Hopson was enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2019.

The 69-year-old was on The Rod Pedersen Show and shared his perspective on what the CFL needs to do in order to return to play after the three-down league cancelled its 2020 season. Host Rod Pedersen led the conversation.

Q: What does the CFL need to do in order to be able to play in 2021?

Hopson: We really gotta concentrate on next year and coming back stronger than ever. If we don’t have a season next year, if we don’t have bums in seats next year, then I don’t know if the CFL can survive. If we don’t find a way to get bums in seats next year, and a substantial number, unlikely to have full attendance, but if we can get up to a third, maybe even a half, we gotta find a way to get bums in seats. We gotta drive some revenue, we gotta engage with our fans.

It really hit me on the weekend when we didn’t have our Labour Day game, when I wasn’t able to do the Labour Day weekend thing, and that included not just the game but get togethers and so on. It was the first time in over 50 years that I wasn’t involved in football in some way. It really hit me too with the CFL games not being on TV, sit down Friday night watch a doubleheader.

I started thinking about next year and how do we get the game back? How do we generate some revenue? How do we control expenditures? There’s a whole bunch of things we have to do to get this right. Hopefully the league and the teams are going to figure that out.

CFL did what they had to do, furloughed a lot of people and laid people off. I had a long conversation with Kevin McDonald, the vice president of football for the CFL for the last 18, 19 years. He’s OK but it really hits home when you talk to people that have been a big part of the CFL and they’ve lost their jobs. There’s a lot of adjustment going on.

Q: What were your takeaways from the Saskatchewan Roughriders Day at Mosaic Stadium on Sunday of the Labour Day weekend?

Hopson: It was very encouraging for me on Sunday, the Riders did a fan event at Mosaic. They had hundreds and hundreds of carloads come through. It was crazy, people were not only in their jerseys, they had the face paint, they had the flags flying, they had the convertible tops down, sun roofs open. People were driving down from Saskatoon. I thought if they’ll do that just to drive through the football area and by the stadium, they’ll come back next year. I don’t think the problem will be getting fans back in Saskatchewan, it’ll be getting fans back in Montreal and Vancouver.

On the other hand, Vancouver can seat 60,000-plus people, why couldn’t we put 20,000-plus people into that stadium? Why couldn’t we put 20,000 into Edmonton? The potential is there to get fans back in the stadium. Find a way to get the families back, I was encouraged by that on Sunday, a lot of families, kids in the cars. We gotta find a way to make it affordable, get people back, and quite frankly, you gotta find a way to get your expenditures down. If you’re going to have reduced revenue, you’re gonna have to have reduced expenditures.

Q: What about the talk about losing teams and perhaps it becomes the Western Canada Football League?

Hopson: It is radical at this point in time. But Rich LeLacheur and I used to have that conversation many, many years ago about the league. We don’t want to become the Western Football League and bus from Edmonton to Calgary and Regina and so on. I don’t think we’re at that stage yet, but we certainly have to figure out who are we? That’s the thing we have to do first.

I know Randy has really pushed this idea of a Global CFL, but for me I think you have to put that on pause right now, you just gotta push pause. Whether it’s one year, two year, three year, maybe forever, but we need to worry about Canada. And getting bums in seats in Canada. Back to basics, we’re the Canadian Football League, what are the things we do best? We connect with fans, a lot of us really do.

We give players the opportunity to play that maybe aren’t going to get a chance to play somewhere else, and they become stars. The game day experience is second to none — we’re not the NFL in terms of hype — you can’t beat being at Mosaic Stadium on Labour Day or Calgary. We’ve gotta get back to that.

Key of course is the relationship with the players and I think they’r working on that. You gotta have an unbelievable relationship during the tough times because there is going to have to be some tough decisions. Will the money be there? I don’t know if we can keep paying them even what we have been paying, which isn’t a lot. We certainly gotta talk about roster size. One of the things that I’ve said, why are we spending 15 percent of our player salaries on one position? We’ve gotta figure out a way to control that. I’m not saying don’t pay the quarterbacks, but where’s Bo Levi [Mitchell] going if he’s not going to play here?

It’s going to take a lot of work to figure out what we need. The CFL has done some good things, made some moves in recent history to reduce the size of coaching staffs. When were were going to Grey Cups three out of four years, we had a nine, 10 man staff and it worked just fine. It can continue to work. It’s going to be a challenge no doubt about it.

I’m not particularly worried about Saskatchewan because of the passion, the connection. I give Craig [Reynolds] and the Riders credit for doing what they did on the weekend, because they’re not just taking for granted the love that the fans have for the Riders and well they’ll come back. Well, they’re not going to come back if you don’t keep them connected and you don’t give them a price point that they can live with.