Len Rhodes, BComm 87, was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Edmonton Eskimos Football Club in December 2011 — and remembers the day he interviewed for the job like it was yesterday. After a sterling career at Molson Coors and Reebok-CCM, Rhodes was applying to run the community-owned Canadian Football League (CFL) team.
“When I walked into my interview process and met the hiring committee, I said, ‘Is this for real? This is just so unique,’” he recalls. “I have worked with many large corporations and everything goes back to the bottom line and delivering profit. Not with the Edmonton Eskimos. It’s about doing the right thing.”
The Eskimos are the most successful CFL franchise of the modern era. “We have such a rich history that dates back to 1949. We have won 14 Grey Cup championships. We’re very important to the civic pride of Edmonton,” says Rhodes. That’s not just because the team has a great track record on the field and is financially sustainable. “It’s because we’re active within the community,” he says.
“For example, our players, coaches, cheerleading team and staff made 850 public appearances in 2015. We’re in schools, in the children’s hospital, we’re at food banks. We’re really a major contributor to the growth of football across northern Alberta. It makes me very proud. It’s one of the reasons why I moved here from Montreal — we are community owned. We walk the walk.”
Results on the field
In addition to community involvement, Rhodes suggests the most important ingredients for a top stadium fan experience boils down to on-field performance — “people buy tickets to watch a contender,” he says — and game-day experience, which means investing in the city-owned Commonwealth Stadium.
“We installed Wi-Fi last year, this year we’ve installed a new LED power ring,” Rhodes reports on the digital light band that rounds the stadium. “We’ve put millions of dollars into the stadium, created premium seating sections and social experiences for our fans, because we believe attending a game is much more than just the game on the field. It’s about interacting with family and friends, which is as important as watching the actual game itself.”
A bonus is the emotional provincial rivalry between the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders. “That rivalry is intense,” Rhodes says. “Citizens share many common values as Albertans, but when it comes to game time, all bets are off. It’s the battle of Alberta!”
At the end of the day, he says, “Winning the 2015 Grey Cup championship is as good as it gets. The exhilaration of winning the ultimate prize is the greatest payoff ever.”
Rhodes — who also serves on the board of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and was named to Alberta Venture magazine’s 2016 list of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People — points to his time at Concordia as launching him well on his way to the top. “I love Concordia, I am a very proud graduate,” he says. “It was a perfect fit with my values and style. I consider Concordia to be the people’s university. It is inclusive and celebrates diversity and I believe it has a pragmatic approach to learning.”
He adds, “I grew up in a low-income neighbourhood. I didn’t come from a family where many people had the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education — and Concordia made me realize that I too could fulfill my dreams and have a great career.”
—Richard Burnett, BA 88