On Wednesday, Tiger-Cats President Scott Mitchell, General Manager Bob O’Billovich and Head Coach Marcel Bellefeuille took part in the annual CFL season preview conference call with the national media. A transcript of the call can be found below...
Scott Mitchell: “Thanks to everybody for attending the call today. I think for a lot of great reasons there is a ton of optimism, and optimism reigns in Hamilton these days. We obviously all feel very fortunate to have a great owner in Bob Young who is very committed to not only the franchise but to the city and I think Bob’s commitment and ongoing enthusiasm for the franchise and for the city is as strong as ever and I know he’s looking forward to a great 2011 season.
“In looking back a little bit, 2010 gives us a lot of the reason for the optimism. We continue to put a great product on the field and aside from a very bitter loss at home in the playoff game, there was a lot to be proud of in 2010.
We had our second straight year of record revenue last year. We had a 19% total growth rate in revenue last year which is phenomenal with all things considered with the economy and some of the situations we were going through. We had great revenue growth with season tickets, casual tickets, corporate partnerships and merchandise. We went over the million dollar mark for the first time in Tiger-Cat history and obviously our food and beverage inside the stadium had significant growth as well.
We have a great staff we've put together on the business side and since we’ve implemented that new staff, our season ticket base has grown by more than 50% in terms of gross revenue. As I said, we talked about the merchandise growth and we had double digit growth as well in our corporate partnerships. I think that’s one of the great things we’re seeing in terms of corporate partnerships. There is a lot of competition for categories with us which is great. We had several significant categories this off-season that saw some great blue-chip companies that were competing for our spot and essentially we’re sold out in our present stadium with our corporate partnerships.
I think for 2011, in terms of tickets, once again we're going to be above the 90% renewed rate for our season tickets, which is great. That beats the industry standard. We’ve got more than 1,000 new season seats sold for this year, we’ve sold out our suites and as I said we’ve sold out our corporate partnerships. So there’s a ton of optimism for us on that side.
We still have a ways to go though. We are by no means sold out in terms of tickets for every game, but we’re making great progress. I think part of what we're going through right now and the growth were seeing and the optimism moving forward gives us a chance to re-invest in the business a little bit.
We’ve always done a great job in terms of putting on a good stadium experience for our fans, but I think this year you’re going to see a much more focused and enhanced stadium experience for our fans… that is, something unique that they cant get by watching the game at home and something they can only experience at the stadium.
I give our marketing group a lot of credit for that. They’ve gotten very creative this year as you’ve seen. We’ve done a little bit of everything while always focusing on the fan experience. Obviously the UFC/Mark Hominick relationship couldn’t have turned out any better and Mark is looking forward to being a headliner at our game this summer. On the opposite side, we’re still very focused on the family experience.
On our opening day on July 1st, of course we’ve got the Backyardigans coming into town, so that’s fun. Again, engaging with the fans and essentially giving the fans a voice to be heard. We’re very excited for our game in October. We’ve got the “Your Team, Your Rules” game, which I think is going to be fantastic on October 7th against (Winnipeg). It gives the fans the chance to vote on everything that happens at the game that day including, and Coach Bellefeuille was very receptive to this, having the fans vote on the opening play of the game that Coach Bellefeuille will give them a choice of plays to vote on. That game they’ll be selecting everything, from the ticket deals to the player uniforms to the music to the cheerleader routines, concession deals, and the merchandise deals at the stadium that day so just a chance for our fans to engage with us and really dictate their own experience at the game that day.
Also, the marketing group has done a great job with the exhibition game which basically lets our season ticket holders dictate who they want in the stadium that day, an exclusive event for our season ticket holders. It’s gone extremely well and again (Director of Marketing) Steve Lowe and (Vice President of Sales and Marketing) Jim Edmands have done a great job on the marketing side to be very creative to put those concepts together.
I know there’s been a lot of discussion about the stadium. There’s not a lot I can say about the stadium. It’s a confidential process. But what I can say that what was a very tough debate for a great deal of time ended off with a good result and what was at times acrimonious, has turned into an incredibly positive and enthusiastic relationship with the city and the mayor the chief of staff and the city manager. What I do know is that there’s going to be a world-class, absolutely beautiful new stadium, delivered on the old Ivor Wynne site in 2014. The work that we’ve seen done and the discussions we’ve had, as I said, have been incredibly productive and I couldn’t be more excited, nor can Bob, about the new stadium and when it comes. So obviously we’ll look forward to being in Ivor Wynne this year. 2012 will the last year at Ivor Wynne before we move into the new stadium in 2014. I cannot speak much about the 2013 season right now because that’s going to be part of the process when the request for proposals go out this summer.
Overall, as I said, a lot of great reasons for optimism, including the stadium, which is going to be fantastic. I think obviously most importantly beyond the fans experience, we’re very focused on the product on the field. We’re going to continue to do everything and anything we can to get better.
We’ve invested heavily in the football operations department to bring the best people that were available, in to surround both Coach Bellefeuille and Bob O’Billovich. I think we’ve accomplished that and I really applaud both Obie and Coach Bellefeuille after the tough loss in the playoff game last year. We all agreed that we weren’t going to make the mistake of believing it was just bad luck. We weren’t good enough. We all agreed with that. We were going to make some changes to address that. And I think we have obviously. I know the coaching staff and Obie are extremely optimistic as well.
I’d like to finish off by saying it’s a pleasure for me to work with Coach Bellefeuille and Obie. Just like Jim Edmands does a great job of running the marketing and sales on the business side, I don’t have to tell you that the impact that Bob O’Billovich has had on running the football operations and we all enjoy very much working together and I think we’ve fostered a very positive atmosphere for everybody in the organization and allowed the players an environment that allows them to compete and be successful. So with that, I’ll turn it over to Bob and let him chat about the football team.
Bob O’Billovich: “Thanks Scott, once again it’s a pleasure to be here with everyone and having this opportunity to share some of the things that have happened in the last little while and also looking forward to this coming season.
First of all, I’d like to support what Scott said about our entire organization. I think everyone who knows me and who’s been around long enough, and I’ve probably said this enough times that people know it comes from me, but I really believe it in my heart that its important that when you’re developing a team attitude -- a positive attitude -- that it should come right from the front office, to the coaches, to the players on the field. I think the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have developed a tremendous attitude in that respect. It comes from our ownership. It comes from Scott as our leader, and right on down the line. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being with an organization in the league as much as I have since I’ve been with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
As Scott mentioned, we're excited about the upcoming season. For me personally, I think I’m more excited for this season then any of the seasons since I’ve been here. I’ve just got a sense about this team that’s being developed. We’ve had some good off-season signings with free agents. We’ve improved our roster in a lot of different areas, and we’re excited about the new coaches that we’ve added to our staff.
We’ve got two new young coordinators who are both very aggressive in their own ways, as far as the offense and the defense is concerned. Having been an old defensive player and coach and respecting that part of the game as much as I do, I’m looking forward to seeing Corey Chamblin’s approach to coaching defence, which has got me very excited. So I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m a little pumped up for the coming season. As well, just looking at the depth chart and at our football team it's been a process that I think we’ve continued to improve each season and our ultimate goal is to win the Grey Cup. I feel this year, that we’re getting closer to doing that and as a result we’re going to keep working hard and I hope that we win as many games as we have to, to put us in the best possible position for us to win the East Division and then go on to the Grey Cup.
We’ve had some additions in football operations. We’ve made some changes. We’ve added some people. Shawn Burke has come over because he saw the light and figured that football operations was best for him to become a better person in the organization, so we’re happy to have him along and helping as my assistant on the administrative side. We hired Joe Womack to come in and be Assistant GM and director of player personal and he’s doing a good job. He’s basically located in the United States right now.
Danny McManus is our (Head U.S. Scout) in the South East. Drew Allemang is our Canadian scout and Drew is doing a heck of a job. This recent draft is an example of the due diligence Drew has put in, in preparing our team for the draft and our coaching staff gets involved. Drew has tremendous input because he’s our specialist, our expert, dealing with our Canadian content. I look around now and look at our football operations staff compared to what it was when I first came here, I’m very optimistic and pleased and feel like were as good, if not the best football operations staff in the league.
I’m excited about a lot of things, and I think all of these things, I’ve always believed as a coach, little things make big things happen. I think were doing the little things better now, and I’m looking forward to seeing some bigger and better things happen this coming season. So were right at the end of the process now as far as finalizing our camp roster. We’ve only got a couple of more decisions to make as far as players are concerned to bring in. We just had a work out this morning to look at some guys as our final decisions are to be made.
Next week our rookies report, so training camp is just around the corner. Having said that, I’ll turn it over to our head coach Marcel Bellefeuille.”
Marcel Bellefeuille: “Thank you Bob. Once again thank you to everyone listening on the call today, we do appreciate your attention. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t open up with a statement just also echoing Scott and Bob’s message. It’s a very exciting time to be a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
As a football coach, all you can ask for is to be in a structured environment, and under Scott’s leadership and the great ownership by Bob Young, I really feel the support mechanisms are in place for our success, not only to continue, but to foster growth in upcoming years. As a coach, the changes that have been made in the structure of the organization really gets you excited to come to work every day and truly appreciate the opportunity to be here.
In terms of the football team, I’ll talk in essence of two things, the players and coaches.
Our coaching staff changes in the off-season were very positive for us. We had an opportunity to maintain some continuity and continuity is always important to the structure and balance of a team. The core of our coaching staff returns, but we made some significant changes, partly through attrition and through need and desire with Khari Jones now being our offensive coordinator.
Everyone knows Khari’s background as a player in the league but he’s also a great young coach that has been grooming here for the past two years and he’s in a position to lead our offense to greater heights. Last year was the first year that we had scored that many points since the Grey Cup win in 1999 and we’ve scored the most points since that point in time and Khari was a big part of that behind the scenes.
Bringing in Corey Chamblin as our defensive coordinator will bring that aggressive style that they played in Calgary and his leadership and ability to relate to players should take our defense to an even newer level. Our defense has already been very exciting and interesting to watch.
Moving Brad Miller over to special teams with his extensive experience as a coach will be the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator and will be important for our success. Brad brings a number of successes and experiences from the NFL in those roles and also his specific ability to work with kickers will allow us to continue to grow and get better on the special teams side of the ball.
In terms of our players, once again we were able to have continuity and change at the same time. We returned our core of players to the fray, the core that over the past two years has been building and developing and growing as a group together. I think it would be remiss not to mention that and that the future success of this club will be based on the core and their ability to improve and continue to deliver on the field, and Bob has done a great job of keeping those guys under contract and extending those players and keeping them in the fray.
We also made some new editions through free agency to get the changes that we need, to bring some leadership and ability to the field. Avon Cobourne obviously was a significant signing for us on the offensive side of the football to help us get more consistent on the ground game and leadership in the locker room as well. Rey Williams on the defensive side of the ball at middle linebacker, with his experience in Saskatchewan and in Pittsburgh, will be able to anchor our defense.
Other notables like Wayne Smith as a Canadian offensive lineman, to come back to Hamilton where he started his career, I think will be important for our success. So, everything is positive in terms of where we're at. I do like the balance between the core of our organization returning and the fact that, as Scott mentioned earlier, that we’ve looked at our deficiencies and where we need to improve and addressing those needs as we move forward. I’m very optimistic about the season and very excited and honoured to coach this football team.
[Q + A PERIOD BEGINS]
Q: Your two new coordinators, Khari Jones and Corey Chamblin, what are their challenges going to be because it’s immensely different being a positional coach from a coordinator from a head coach, what will you be observing to see how well they assimilate to their new responsibilities?
Coach Bellefeuille: That’s a good question. Both coaches, obviously, are excellent teachers, so I feel very strongly that they’ll be able to present material to the players and create game plans and they have that experience.
I think the biggest picture here is really the structure of the position, it’s the things behind the scenes that people don’t see. It’s not just game planning, calling plays during the game, but it’s structuring your meeting time, dealing with that process, dealing with the bigger picture relating to other position groups that are outside of your group.
I’ll continue to monitor and try and assist them with every area of the position, but certainly the OTA’s was a great stepping-stone, a great opportunity for both those coaches to start developing that. What is measured is games, so we have some things in place that’ll allow us to measure that and make sure that we are where we need to be.
Q: Is the personnel a match for what coach Chamblin would like to do in terms of being a little bit more aggressive on defence? As opposed to coach Marshall, he was a little bit more wait for an offence to make a mistake and I sense coach Chamblin is going to be more forcing an offence to make a mistake.
Coach Bellefeuille: We have done a great job with our personnel department with Obie and Joe and the free agents camps of trying to get the right type of athletes to play in the system, especially in the secondary.
Our front seven we already have those athletes in place and those guys have been playing that way, so we’ve made major strides in the secondary to find the type of players that can get up and pressure people and get in receivers faces and I think that’s all positive.
I think the other part of it too is as an organization, and not from the defensive side of the football, we all have to be more aggressive and play more aggressively to be more successful and we believe that’s one of the things that we have to do to be a better football team this year. I think Corey is in line with that, but you’ll also see that from the special teams and offensive side.
Q: Scott, you say that ticket sales and seat sales are up. What are your season ticket numbers at, at this point?
Scott Mitchell: Just because of the vastly different nature of how they used to do things to our previous regime, we equate everything to revenue as opposed to seat numbers. What I can tell you is that right now we’re looking at a 12% growth rate right now for our tickets this year, both in terms of season seats and our casual seats.
Q: How selective are you going to be in releasing the number of plays that you’re going to give the fans to choose from? I’m gathering it’s not going to be too crazy.
Coach Bellefeuille: We don’t want to limit the fans, just like we don’t want to limit our players. I think the list will have to be fairly extensive and somewhat creative to really put a little bit of moxie behind what we’re trying to do and not make it just one of those ornamental type of things. We'll give them lots of opportunity and we'll put some creativity in there.
Q: Marcel, did you feel the offence needed a vocal leader like Avon? Did you feel that was needed?
Coach Bellefeuille: Leadership comes in a lot of different ways and we have a lot of strong leaders on our team already and players that lead by example. But, obviously having coached Avon I know him well and I know his style and I think that is something that is going to help us and is going to contribute to our leadership.
Players holding each other accountable, obviously is the ultimate thing in sport, in terms of being successful and Avon’s one of those players that will hold himself accountable to other players around him, so I think that was part of it. The number one part is his ability to play, but that’s something I think that will help us and the other players that have that in them he’ll pull it out of them.
Q: How is has the NFL labour situation affected the way you put this team together? Secondly, as the lockout continues, do you anticipate there might be more free agents or even draft picks coming up here this year?
Bob O’Billovich: I think that the situation down there, as far as what we’re able to gather information wise, is that it’s kind of bleak right as far as whether or not they're going to go to training camp. I kind of get the sense that it’s probably going to be some kind of abbreviated training camp, maybe a two week period or something and they’ll go right into the regular schedule. I don’t even know if they’re going to have a training camp.
Obviously, that’s definitely going to affect young players who are trying to figure out what’s their best way to have an opportunity to play somewhere and we’re starting to realize now, since the NFL draft has happened, that some of these players that were hoping they could maybe get signed as a free agent, if this thing happens the way I just explained it, those free agent players aren’t going to have much of an opportunity or much of a look, so they would certainly be welcomed in the CFL where they have a chance to play right away if they’re good enough.
I think it’s probably going to create a positive situation for us, as far as finding new talent and new players, but we really won’t know for sure until something definite happens down there as far as them solving their problems between the players associations and the league. Right now we’re just concentrating on trying to do our jobs and getting the best possible players up here. If there’s a few players who are becoming more available than they would have been that’s going to be better for the whole league as far as the CFL’s concerned.
Q: When you look at your off-season moves and compare them to other teams moves in the East, how confident are you that this is the year that you get over the hump?
Bob O’Billovich: I’ve been confident every year. I feel really good about this year, honestly. There is just some things, there is just some special vibes I think are going on. I think the strength of our football team last year was our front seven, I didn’t think that we got as much out of our front seven as we were capable of getting out of them, as far as being better.
Looking at it this year, with a new defensive coordinator and looking at those guys who’ve been playing together now for a couple years, and bringing in a guy like Renauld Williams at the middle linebacker spot, that was a tough decision to have to let a guy like Otis Floyd go to make room for this young man, but this guy’s a young Otis Floyd who’s going to pack a whallop in the middle and he’s going to be the kind of guy that you like to see your defence built around.
If we’ve addressed the situation in the secondary with some big young players who can do all the things that our new coordinator wants to be done back there, I think that’s going to say a lot for our football team getting better on the defensive side. We did some positive things on offence last year, but we didn’t do it when it was most important in the playoff game, so I think just the added experience that we’ve had as a young team growing, I think that is coming to fruition this year.
I expect us to be a major challenge to the Alouettes because they are the defending Grey Cup champions and our job is to dethrone them.
Q: What does having a veteran running back like Avon Cobourne do to Marcus Thigpen’s role and his development as a young player?
Coach Bellefeuille: Marcus’ role is going to evolve, obviously I’m not in a position today to tell the whole country, but he still will have a place in the backfield, he did last year. He still is our number one special teams player, so how much we utilize him physically is obviously going to be dependant on that role as well. He’ll still continue to be a player in the backfield, I think it’s a good match -- him and Avon Cobourne -- in terms of being able to spell Avon a little bit and being on our roster. He can do more things receiving and we’re going to take a strong look at that in training camp as well.
Q: What do you think of the importance of Canadian scouting and the Canadian draft at the moment?
Bob O’Billovich: Well I don’t think there’s any secret to that. Those of us who’ve been around the league as long as I have, we know that the key to winning in the Canadian Football League is built around your Canadian content, the better those players are the better the chances you have of developing a solid roster, which will allow you to win football games. Because it’s so important you’re looking for someone who can stay right on top of those things as far as following the Canadian content and where the best players are and what has to be done to stay in touch.
Drew Allemang is doing a great job in that respect, we’ve kind of restricted down his responsibilities to that per say, where by he is concentrated solely on following Canadian talent throughout the league – both in Canada and the United States when we have players that are down there playing for US colleges. He’s a very valuable guy to our organization. If I think back years ago when I first came into the league as a young assistant coach, at that time I remember Edmonton was winning five straight Grey Cups and they were one of the few teams with a US scout and then they had a Canadian scout.
That’s the kind of a role that we’re using Drew for and we take care of the rest of it with the positions I mentioned earlier. It’s really important and we know how to deal with it in terms of the experiences of myself and Marcel and Drew’s just learning by leaps and bounds. He’s a good young administrator that’s going to become a very good football man during his career in the CFL.
Q: The Alouettes have seemed to have loaded up on physical, tallish receivers… you said you want your secondary to be more aggressive, can you talk a little about the main guys that we should keep an eye on the next couple of months?
Coach Bellefeuille: When we start out and we look at how we have to defend, one of the first things we look at is who do we lineup over Jamel Richardson, obviously. He has his way with the smaller halfbacks. I thought we did a pretty good job last year with Jerome Dennis being a 6’2" defensive back, who has some strength, putting him over top of [Richardson]. In terms of what we’re talking about with what we want to do with our secondary, you’ll see probably see bigger players in our secondary this year. Players that are more athletic and can probably run better and ask them to do a little bit less, but to be able to play physically.
There’s probably a chance that our fans will see two or three, potentially new players back there depending on how things shape out in training camp. It’s not necessarily so much who you may see, it’s probably are we going to see some different people that we weren’t aware of.