Laval's secret

Laval Rouge et Or's private sponsorship and recruiting tactics produce championship wins

The Laval Rouge et Or football team have won four of the past eight Vanier Cups and are currently ranked first in Canada.
The Laval Rouge et Or football team have won four of the past eight Vanier Cups and are currently ranked first in Canada.
Supplied by Steve Deschenes

The Laval Rouge et Or’s $5 million operating budget and superior recruiting model will be on display when their men’s and women’s volleyball teams visit Queen’s for exhibition games this weekend. Barring 2008, both teams have been to every national championship since 1998 and finished last season ranked first and fourth, respectively, in Canada.

Laval Athletics consistently produces national champions. Their men’s soccer team has competed at nationals six years in a row and won the championships in 2009.

The cross country ski team and the golf team were both national champions last season. The women’s rugby team is currently ranked third in the country. And the football team — the program’s most valuable asset — has been the Vanier Cup champion four times in the past eight seasons. They’re currently the country’s top-ranked football team.

There are two reasons for the program’s success. The Rouge et Or have one of the highest operating budgets in Canadian University Sport and they attract top francophone athletes through their links with Quebec’s CEGEP program — the province’s two-year college system that students attend before university.

The Rouge et Or’s 13 varsity teams are treated as individual clubs that operate as autonomous units within the Athletics framework. Though the 13 clubs have a combined operating budget of about $5 million, only $500,000 comes from the Athletics department. Each club has its own president, board of directors and head of fundraising to seek out private sponsorship.

“These people are often businessmen and businesswomen who have an entrepreneurial attitude,” Laval Athletics director Gilles Lépine said.

Other schools are noticing. Lépine said representatives from eight other Canadian university programs have visited Quebec City to examine the model over the past two years. Queen’s Athletics director Leslie Dal Cin visited the campus in August.

The Rouge et Or’s push for private funding began in the 1980s, when the university was suffering a financial deficit. At that point, they didn’t even have a football team. The Athletics program decided community sponsorship was the only way to keep their varsity teams.

“We told the community ‘if you want to have these sports, you have to put money on the table. If not, we have to cut them,’ ” Lépine said. “And it worked.”

The Rouge et Or spoke to Jacques Tanguay — a high-profile Quebec City businessman and Laval alumnus who secured deals with several corporate sponsors and helped create the Rouge et Or football program in 1995. They won their first Vanier Cup within five years.

Lépine said the Rouge et Or are the most popular university for Quebec athletes because Laval is the biggest French-speaking school in the province, giving them an advantage over English-based schools like McGill and Concordia.

“French-speaking athletes are more likely to go to French-speaking universities,” Lépine said, adding about 90 per cent of his athletes come from CEGEP schools.

“We’re on really good conditions with athletic directors from CEGEP,” he said. “We have a direct link with them.”

Lépine said first-year men’s volleyball player Tommy Belzile — who’ll be making his Rouge et Or debut in Kingston against the Gaels this weekend — is a perfect example of how Laval has established direct networks with CEGEP schools to attract Quebec’s top high school prospects. Belzile went to CEGEP Limoilou in Quebec City before attending Laval.

“He’s from Trois-Rivieres and he was looking to play at a good level,” Lépine said. “He went to Limoilou and now he’s entering the Rouge et Or program. It’s exactly the process.”

Queen’s men’s volleyball head coach Brenda Willis said Quebec college players are older and more mature than players coming out of high school.

“Athletes can leave in Grade 11, go to CEGEP and play in the Canadian college system for up to three years without losing eligibility,” she said, adding that CEGEP athletes tend to be “competitively seasoned before they get to the Laval program.”

Queen’s football head coach Pat Sheahan said the Rouge et Or football team benefits from being the most high-profile sports team in Quebec City, which has a population of about 700,000.

“When you have a bigger community and no major professional teams, you pull those sponsorship dollars,” he said. “The biggest show in town is amateur sports and they’re reaping the benefits.”

The Rouge et Or football team’s operating budget is over $2 million, most of which comes from private sponsorship. According to Lépine, the Rouge et Or use the football team’s popularity with sponsors to benefit other sports programs. Lépine maintains a policy stipulating that sponsors of the football team must also sponsor all other Laval sports. Laval’s student-athletes make up the 400 volunteers who work home football games. Instead of paying the students, Athletics funnels the profits into their teams.

“It’s intimidated a lot of programs,” Sheahan said. “Their whole approach to marketing and sponsorship is … so far ahead of everybody else in terms of how to make money through your football program.”

Sheahan said the Rouge et Or football program has taken an active role in CEGEP football to ensure they’ll be getting top recruits.

He added that Laval has been instrumental in the creation of CEGEP football programs.

“They’ve gone in and helped them secure equipment and they’ve got their graduates in there working as coaches,” Sheahan said.

Sheahan sent sports marketing experts and football alumni to Quebec City to study the program and seek advice from Laval staff last year. While the Rouge et Or have five full-time coaches, 8,000 season ticket holders and hold spring training camp in Florida every year, the Gaels have two full-time coaches and conduct spring camp on Tindall field.

“They have a lot that people should be trying to emulate,” Sheahan said. “But they also have a lot that’s almost impossible to emulate.”

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