Rob Assimakopoloulos & the CFL: A league of our own

Rob Assimakopoloulos's new CFL playbook entails kid recruitment exercises and going deep with digital.

The Canadian Football League is 100% Canadian. It plays its 77 games a year on a field that’s 110 yards long. Fast-paced, with only three downs per possession, its fan base is growing – the average broadcast audience for CFL games on TSN over the past three seasons has been 363,000 (nearly double TSN’s average audience throughout the 1990s), and it’s already up 13% over last year. In 2007 the CFL average attendance was 29,167 per game, marking the sixth straight year that league-wide attendance has exceeded two million. And it boasts more than 100 years of history that’s rich with great Canadian moments.

Last August, Rob Assimakopoulos was brought in as senior VP marketing and commercial assets by CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, to sharpen the positioning of the brand. Given the tradition the league carries, well, ‘Let’s say I approach the task with a lot of humility,’ says Assimakopoulos, who realized it’s simply about communicating what’s authentic and resonates about the CFL.

‘It became a search for the truth about this brand and what it’s become,’ he says. ‘Participatory, accessible and fast-paced are attributes that our fans play back as to why they like it.’ Cohon agrees with Assimakopoulos’s tack, saying, ‘He helps clarify and articulate that it’s about being community-driven, and the fabric of our nation.’

Thus was born the ‘This is our league’ brand video – a passionate piece produced by David Rosenberg and his team at Bensimon Byrne. It’s subtly placed on the CFL’s YouTube channel and other online assets, and also airs via the league’s exclusive broadcast partner, TSN. The video communicates the essence of the league through clips of stirring CFL moments, complemented by an inspiring narrative and the song ‘Always’ by Canadian band Neverending White Lights. ‘It really is to amplify the sense of belonging that people have with the league,’ says Assimakopoulos. The CFL is working closely with Bensimon Byrne on executions to be rolled out over conventional media, and with their activation agency TrojanOne to make sure that the message is spread effectively on the ground.

The challenge, of course, is how to utilize that insight to engage new fans. Assimakopoulos, who started at Ford 14 years ago, then worked at Proctor and Gamble and Molson Canada before moving to the CFL, feels that one of the things he’s brought with him is disciplined thinking on the front end.

‘When I talked about bringing process to the branding exercise, the first job was [finding] our most predisposed potential new fans,’ he says. Research showed that engagement for CFL fans starts young, in a family context. The exercise led Assimakopoulos and his team of 15 people across the marketing, events and licensing partnerships, as well as broadcast and digital assets departments to identify young families as the ones they need to talk to, and shared experiences as the itch they need to scratch.

‘Our challenge, I should say our opportunity, is the next generation of fans,’ says Cohon. ‘People come to me and say, ‘What can I do to support the league?’ ‘Bring your kid or grandkid to the game.’ And that’s what Rob is doing.’

Family Football (the name is a work in progress) is a new initiative that aims to support these efforts. The program is still in development, but the plan is to hold a pilot event this year in Toronto. The concept involves a training camp format, including

family-friendly activities. ‘The CFL wants to play an active role in tackling the fitness crisis facing Canadian kids today,’ says Assimakopoulos. ‘We’re working on partnerships that will help us drive that deep into the community, and Family Football is one of them.’

Of course, greater accessibility is key to growing the fan base, which has led to a flurry of digital and mobile experimentation. Families can go to http://fantasy.cfl.ca to join the Canadian Family Football League, a football fantasy game. Partnered with Reebok, the CFL rolled out this summer, and the grand prize is a trip to the 96th Grey Cup festival and game in Montreal.

The CFL recently inked a deal with mobile provider Viigo to offer another way to connect to Canadian football. The branded service will send news, real-time stats and scores to fans by way of their BlackBerry, and provide the ability to search out schedules and purchase tickets. ‘Viigo really attempts to make sure that anyone who wants to participate in the league can do so,’ says Assimakopoulos.

Also, an interactive television initiative called Nissan Make the Call has the CFL partnering with Nissan and LiveHive Systems for CFL telecasts. Viewers can go to cfl.nissan.ca while watching CFL games and make predictions about coming plays, answer trivia questions, take part in polls with other viewers and chat with fans. LiveHive has also incorporated its NanoGaming technology into the purview of online social networking communities, furthering fans’ access to the program with a Nissan Make the Call Facebook application.

Social responsibility is another focus. The league introduced its Green Drive for last year’s Grey Cup, which entailed clean power, proper sorting of waste and the purchase of carbon offsets. Partnering with the league on the project were the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Zerofootprint, Bullfrog Power and Turtle Island. ‘It’s great if your commercial initiatives can also fulfill your social responsibility initiatives,’ says Assimakopoulos. ‘When you create those kinds of integrated partnerships, that’s when you’re really feeling like you’re working much harder.’

The program builds on similar initiatives that Assimakopoulos has inherited. A perfect example is the Purolator Tackle Hunger initiative, an integrated partnership between the CFL and Purolator in which every time a quarterback is sacked, Purolator donates his weight in food to the local food bank. The courier company also ships the Grey Cup to participating cities and leverages it for food donations. And, since engaging itself in the Tackle Hunger initiative with the CFL, Purolator has come to enjoy a four-to-one ROI for every dollar it invested.

Fun is also a part of the game plan. The CFL will kick off a 1950s-inspired retro week, starting on Sept. 12, when the Toronto Argonauts face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Toronto. Including a ’50s-style broadcast and team uniforms, the initiative will remind fans of the storied history of the CFL, like the infamous ‘Mud Bowl’ played at Varsity Stadium in Toronto between the Bombers and the Boatmen, at the end of which fans rushed onto the field and displaced the goalposts. ‘Fans taking home the goalposts is that one historic moment where you can say yeah, this is our league,’ says Assimakopoulos.

He modestly describes his style as draconian and barbaric, but with a little more prodding it turns out that Assimakopoulos is an energizer in the workplace. ‘He’s very creative,’ says Cohon. ‘In our office we have an open-door policy. We have fun, and that’s what’s important.’

And in terms of the brand-positioning direction and the attributes of the CFL that Assimakopoulos is trying to communicate, ‘When [the late] Bob Ackles, president of the B.C. Lions, or Bob O’Billovich, GM of the Hamilton Tiger Cats, come up to me after a presentation and say, ‘I think you’ve got it,’ that’s a humbling experience,’ says Assimakopoulos.