The Calgary Roughnecks rank as one of the most successful franchises in the National Lacrosse League, both on and off the field. Since entering the league in 2001, the team that represents Alberta’s largest city has won three NLL titles (most recently in 2019), and established one of the most devoted and raucous fanbases in the sport.
Last season, the club averaged nearly 12,000 fans per home game, including a 17,444 St. Patrick’s Day attendance figure against the Saskatchewan Rush. During their lone home game of 2023-2024 so far, more than 13,000 spectators cheered on the Roughnecks. This team is a very big deal in Canada’s energy capital.
What is the secret to the Roughnecks’ business success? NLL.com spoke to Dustin Edwards, Calgary’s Manager, Business Operations, to gather some clues.
“From the minute the doors open, we run a really cool happy hour with drink specials,” noted Edwards. “We have DJ’s in the concourse, beer garden areas and yard games, we really give it that party feel. We emphasize our in-game entertainment, including the way we play our music and how the announcers interact with the crowd when opposing players go to the penalty box or our team makes a good save. We have really cool in-game elements to engage the crowd.”
If it sounds like a Roughnecks game is half party, half sporting event, you would be 100 per cent correct. Per Edwards, this is very much by design.
“Our team’s slogan is ‘come for the party, stay for the game.’ We create an experience from 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. You are partying at the Saddledome with the Roughnecks. We want fans to be entertained from the moment they enter to the moment they leave.”
The Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. (Photo: Scotiabank Saddledome)
Speaking of WestJet Field at Scotiabank Saddledome, Edwards and the Roughnecks have nothing but love for the 40-year-old building that has played host to four NLL Finals, three Stanley Cup Finals, the 1988 Winter Olympics, the annual Calgary Stampede Concert Series, and visits from the Dalai Lama and Queen Elizabeth II. The Roughnecks’ home is very much a part of the city’s fabric.
“It’s an old barn, but super iconic. Anytime you’re flying in and out of the city you see that big saddle shaped building. It’s an iconic landmark in our downtown core,” opined the Roughnecks executive. “No matter what seat you sit in at the Saddledome, there is no obstructed view of the center turf area. There is no bad seat. No matter where you’re sitting you get the same experience as someone below you or above you.”
Though Calgary’s four-decade love affair with the distinctively-shaped structure is as robust as ever, the lifespan of the world famous venue is dwindling, as the city and province, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation and the Calgary Stampede are nearing groundbreaking on a jointly-constructed downtown arena, which will serve as the centerpiece of a $1.2 billon development that will also feature a community ice rink, indoor and outdoor fan plazas, enhanced parking and commercial business opportunities. Located immediately north of the Saddledome, the $800 million event space will play host to the Roughnecks, NHL’s Flames, WHL’s Hitmen and AHL’s Wranglers, while serving as the epicenter of activity for the famed Calgary Stampede rodeo/festival event.
As part of the development’s master plan, the Saddledome will be demolished.
CALGARY, AB – DECEMBER 30, 2023: The Calgary Roughnecks against the Las Vegas Desert Dogs at Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday. (Photo by Jenn Pierce/NLL)
While the soon-to-be end of an era will be bittersweet for Calgary teams and fans, Edwards absolutely sees a bright side amid all the change.
“We’re excited for what the opportunities will be. It will allow us to elevate the experience of the fans and elevate the party with all the technology that will come with it. We’ll be able to utilize the spaces to activate pregame and in-game. It will all lend itself to our strategy of increasing the product and making the fan experience that much better.”
While a large percentage of Roughnecks fans reside within the Calgary metro area, Edwards and other franchise marketers have made outreach to the entire province a significant priority, particularly after the Rush relocated from Edmonton to Saskatoon for the 2016 season. These efforts include aggressively promoting to Alberta’s nearly 4.8 million residents, while simultaneously working to cultivate a following with the next generation of Western Canada lacrosse participants.
“We’re very fortunate to be Alberta’s only professional lacrosse team and our brand extends beyond the city. We have season ticket holders that live outside Calgary and drive in for their nine games a year. We are heavily involved with youth lacrosse programs throughout the province of Alberta,” noted Edwards.
The longtime sports industry manager comes to work every day feeling incredibly bullish regarding the current and future state of box lacrosse in his country’s fourth largest province and the role the Roughnecks play in terms of creating lifelong enthusiasm for a sport that continues to grow at a meteoric clip.
“There’s a lot of great players that come from Alberta, that have developed here and then gone on to the university, national and even NLL level. There’s some really good talent here and it stems from the work that the Roughnecks and other groups are doing to grow it at the grassroots level,” proclaimed Edwards.
He added, “we have kids picking up their first lacrosse sticks at ‘try it’ sessions and their first camps. We want our brand to be alongside it and have them become lifelong fans from the first minute they get a taste of the game. We also want to provide resources for them to become better players, raising the skill level and opportunity within the province.”
When factoring in an exciting on-field product, an incredible in-arena experience and a franchise dedicated to making local lacrosse the very best it could be, life is looking pretty darn good for those who hitch themselves to the Roughnecks’ wagon.
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