The Edmonton Elks have taken their first baby steps towards an organizational turn around, but the climb to mountaintop is far from over.
Speaking with Teddy Katz of ADRENALIN magazine, new president and CEO Victor Cui laid out his ambitious dreams for the franchise’s immediate future: a two-year resurgence that would put the team in rarified air nationally.
“My goal is unequivocally to make the Edmonton Elks the number one sports property in Canada [so that] when I present our business metrics to a sponsor, it is undeniable that they should be a part of this team,” Cui explained. “That’s my goal… to beat everybody in two years. Can we do it? I don’t know. But that’s my bull’s-eye.”
That will be no easy task, however. After several years of slow decline, the once dynastic Edmonton franchise seemed to collapse on itself under the leadership of former president Chris Presson, general manager Brock Sunderland, and head coach Jaime Elizondo.
All are now gone with Cui taking the top job and Chris Jones hired to run all aspects of the football operations, but the impact of the previous era on the fanbase remains. Trust in an iconic Canadian team has been eroded and it is Cui’s responsibility to make the structural repairs.
“I’m invigorated by the challenge. This is not a ship with one big hole that has to be fixed. This is a ship with 1,000 different holes. Each hole requires a custom new solution to repair it,” he noted.
“People care about sports. There’s an emotional bond with a team. When that bond is frayed [it’s a huge problem], which is where it is today with the Edmonton Elks and the community.”
Cui has earned rave reviews for his approach thus far, pounding the pavement and making himself publicly available to fans on social media. While labour intensive the task of making locals reconnect with the Elks franchise is not quite the same as Cui’s previous job. When he built the billion-dollar MMA promotion company ONE Championship from scratch, it demanded more than answering 350 direct messages a day from average Edmontonians.
“I was not only starting a whole new business, I had to lobby dictators, military juntas, communist governments, and convince them that this was a sport they should open their doors to,” Cui shared.
Running the Elks is less of a political minefield and the public handshaking is much more palatable. While much of the president’s early efforts have gone towards driving up ticket sales, Cui notes that engaging all fans is vital. The CFL’s gate-driven model of business is outdated and those who choose to sit on the coach at home are still part of the Elks’ family.
“In this new world, how can you say that the sofa fan is less important than the stadium fan… if they love the game as much and they go online and buy $500 of merchandise?” Cui remarked. “Meanwhile the person that comes to the stadium [may only buy] a $150 ticket and zero merchandise. The person who sits on the sofa is just as valuable as the person who comes to your stadium.”
The nature of fandom may have changed, but Cui’s hasn’t. Growing up in Edmonton as a Filipino-Canadian, the franchise was a source of admiration and pride. To have a chance to return it to that place as an adult is special for a number of reasons.
“When I was a kid, the CFL, and this team, was this magical thing behind the black curtain. I didn’t know how it operated. There was nobody that looked like me—a first-generation Canadian with immigrant parents—that was in the business of sports,” Cui recalled.
“Today, I look at this opportunity and think how lucky am I to be leading one of the nine teams. The only president and CEO that’s a visible minority. I recognize the privilege that I have to be building a ladder behind me for the next generation to hopefully say: ‘There is a role in Canadian sports for me.’”