In July 2015, Michael Copeland was named the new President and CEO of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. Michael was a critical first hire for the new Argos ownership group, Bell Canada and Kilmer Group. Previously, Michael had been the President & COO of the Canadian Football League (CFL) for about 10 years.
Michael entered law school at the young age of 20 and embraced the challenge. After completing his law degree, he added an IVEY MBA to his resume and embarked on a consulting career with Deloitte, and later with Boston Consulting Group. Several years with Molson Coors in strategy and brand roles followed before Michael made the jump to the CFL where he joined forces with Mark Cohon, the CFL’s Commissioner and CEO.
Michael is a former “Top 40 Under 40” and a member of Waterfront Toronto’s Board of Directors. He is also a competitive runner and triathlete, having completed numerous marathons across North America and the Ironman USA Triathlon.
Odgers Berndtson recently spoke with Michael to discuss the CFL, the Argos and his leadership journey.
Was football a sport that you played when growing up?
I was around football nearly every day of my childhood, and spent countless hours watching my two older brothers play. I rebelled a bit though, and didn't sign up for organized football. I chose to play minor hockey instead but I probably had my hand on a football 5 days a week.
What was it like entering law school at 20 when most of your colleagues/classmates were older than you?
It was daunting. I remember the first day of orientation, talking to others many years older and with one or more degrees. I didn't know if I could measure up. I decided that I needed to make a choice: I could either avoid the challenge and guarantee failure or I could try my best and risk failure. I chose the latter, knowing that I would be content even if I failed, as I would give my best effort. I'm glad I took that step, because it worked out fairly well for me. And I've taken the same approach many times over the course of my career.
How has studying law and working as a consultant helped you to be successful in your business career to date?
Law school taught me how to think. It provided me with tremendous discipline and focus. Consulting provided me with outstanding processes and methods to approach complex problems, and the confidence to tackle the largest and most difficult of business issues.
Fans in 2016 are now confronted with an array of sports options. How do the traditional sports leagues like the CFL and their teams compete in this new reality?
Magic was better because of Bird. We shouldn't shrink from competition, but rather accept it as a challenge to be better. I think there's room for more than one sport within every fan's life but only for those sports that are big on the fan experience, media and communication, community involvement, and winning percentage, among others. Only the strong will survive, but they will also co-exist.
Some people say that the fan of 2016, with increasing time constraints and new technologies, is becoming more elusive. What are the challenges of retaining core fans and attracting new ones?
Like any industry, the sports industry also needs to continually be aware of market dynamics and change where change is required. And today, the rate of change is more rapid than ever. So, I think the sports industry needs to reinvent itself continuously by having the confidence to make dramatic changes and challenge accepted norms when necessary. Currently, I believe the most pressing area of concern for leagues and teams is the reinvention of the fan experience to serve the unique needs of a new generation.
Connecting to and sustaining a devoted fan base is both an opportunity and a major challenge. What changes do you have in store for the Argos fan and franchise alike?
This year will be a year of dramatic change on almost every dimension for the Toronto Argonauts. We have a new home stadium, a new brand and a new relationship with our fans. One of the most exciting changes is our focus on the Argos' game experience, founded on incredible social experiences. Pre-game tailgating will lead the way in this regard, and will extend right through our in-stadium outdoor experience at BMO Field.
You and Mark Cohon accomplished many things while at the CFL together, such as annual profit growth, a revitalized brand, dominant television ratings, engaged sponsors, expansion into new markets and over $2B in new stadium development? Looking back, what are you most proud of and why?
We helped to fundamentally change the business model for the league, and put the teams in a position where they could (and should) all be profitable. We established a thoughtful strategic plan and we executed it well. I'm proud of that.
Who in your life and career – business and personal – has shaped your leadership style?
Before I came to the CFL, I was under the impression that the most successful leaders had to be aggressive, domineering and autocratic. I was resigned that my management ceiling was low, because I didn't really fit that bill. Two individuals, Tom Wright and Mark Cohon, proved to me that one can effectively lead, and also be thoughtful, kind, respectful and inclusive. I raised my ceiling back up because of them. On the personal side, I'd pick my kids. It's far more rewarding to help them develop a new skill than it is to reprimand them for being deficient of one.
You sit on the Board of Directors of Waterfront Toronto. Much has changed on the Toronto waterfront in the past 15 years. Many people are asking whether development will slow down at some point. Thoughts?
I draw a parallel between the Argonauts and Toronto's waterfront. Both are familiar to Torontonians, and are a long-standing part of the city fabric. But both have also suffered from neglect, and become under-used and under-appreciated in recent years. However, and most importantly, both are now embarking on a bold and ambitious reinvention that will position them to become a more cherished and central part of our city.
Last question: what do people mostly get wrong about you?
I actually like to clown around a lot but rarely let that side show in professional circles. That's starting to change.
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