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Restoring title town

Michael Copeland, LLB’93, MBA’99, helps Argos return to prominence

by Paul Mayne

On Nov. 25, Michael Copeland, LLB’93, MBA’99, watched the Western Mustangs celebrate their first Vanier Cup title in more than two decades on Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont. Fewer than 24 hours later and 500 kilometres away, Copeland kept on celebrating as his Toronto Argonauts hoisted the Grey Cup after a last-minute field goal by former Mustangs kicker Lirim Hajrullahu, BA’13, MA’15.

“It was an incredibly exciting and special weekend,” said the former Argonauts President and CEO. “I watched the Vanier and have always remained a big supporter of the team, of coach (Greg) Marshall, and the school. It was great to see the Mustangs win.

“Then, with our Grey Cup win, it was huge – a career moment for me and our team. I don’t know if that feeling will wear off. But, over time, we want to continue to look forward by taking all this in, enjoying it, but building off of it and never taking it for granted.”

Wrapping up just his second year leading one of the oldest existing professional sports teams in North America at 144 years, Copeland is thrilled to have helped bring the Argos back to prominence in the Canadian sports landscape.

A seasoned Canadian business executive with an extensive business development, marketing and legal background, Copeland served as Chief Operating Officer of the Canadian Football League starting in 2006, then headed league operations as President and COO from 2013-15.

During his time in the league office, he led several key initiatives, including a comprehensive new broadcast and digital rights agreement, the establishment of a new salary cap system, a new collective bargaining agreement with players, the introduction of the league’s first drug-testing policy and the return of football to Ottawa.

In January 2018, Copeland announced that he was leaving his role as Argos President and CEO to assume a new role within MLSE. Details of that role will be coming out at some point in the near future.

But for a kid born and raised in the GTA, Copeland saw the Argos job as a hometown challenge.

In CFL circle, Toronto is ‘Title Town’ with the Argonauts having won a record 17 Grey Cups. The franchise boasts the best winning percentage in the championship game and the longest active winning streak in which they have appeared in the title game, at six. They last won in 2012, again defeating the Calgary Stampeders.

But, in recent years, tight budgets and non-fan-friendly surroundings saw the team slip. Sports talk centred on the NHL, MLB, NBA and, increasingly, MLS. Copeland knew it was time to get the team back into the Toronto sports scene conversation.

“At various stages of your career, there are natural transition points. It had been 10 years at the league office for me. Somebody had said you know it’s the right time to make a transition when you look at all of the check boxes you originally established, and all of them have check marks,” he explained.

“The only one that wasn’t checked was bringing the Argos brand back to a position of prominence and stature. I thought I had a greater ability to contribute to that at the team level versus the league level.”

His move to the Argos coincided with the 2015 sale of the team to Larry Tanenbaum’s Kilmer Sports Inc. and Bell Canada – two-thirds of the mega Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) group, and owners of such Toronto sports teams as the Raptors, Maple Leafs, Marlies and Toronto FC. In November 2017, Rogers Communications, the third partner in MLSE, joined as part of the CFL team’s new ownership.

While “great for the team and great for the city,” the powerful partnership brought great expectations.

“Everyone involved understood what the objective was – restore the Argos to where it should exist in the landscape of Toronto sports,” Copeland said. “Certainly, it was a big challenge, and continues to be a big challenge, but one we know we will achieve.

“It’s a lot more fun being involved in something that requires a group to roll up their sleeves and make a difference. It would have been less attractive to me if it didn’t require our group to work together to make an impact. I like to think of myself as a builder – and the bigger and more daunting the challenges the better. I learned, in my consulting background, there is no problem too large or too complex that can’t be resolved with the right amount of creativity and hard work.”

While the on-field product is top priority, he recognizes the importance of the off-the-field experience. “We want fans understanding that our game experience is different now and really something special. We want to continue to improve in those areas and we’ve made some great strides and progress in the last two years.”

He continued, “Our core fans are incredible. They have stuck through some very difficult times and conditions with this team over the last decade. They are passionate about the team. Anything we do to bring in new fans, they are receptive and supportive of. The core fans really care about the pride we have in the team, which is important to us as management. We never want to alienate them as they are the foundation on which we are building.”

Dedicated to delivering fans the greatest football experience, Copeland understands the careful balance between consistency and tradition with staying current.

“Sports is a business and it has its challenges, like any other business. But it’s always a fun place to be,” he said. “We’re involved in something that is meaningful to people. When you can bring a championship to your hometown and be involved in this, it is exciting. It’s one of the reasons I love it so much.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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