Wider Horizons

For John Vidalin, whether it’s football season or not, most days in sunny Texas are “first-and-goal.” john vidalinAnd while the Houston Texans’ seasons tend to end sooner than most in the NFL, the team is flourishing at the gate, making Vidalin’s job as their vice-president of sales slightly easier than that of, say, head coach Gary Kubiak.

In fact, if growing fan support and exceptional marketing got teams to the Super Bowl, Vidalin would have had seats on the 50 in Phoenix last month. It doesn’t and he didn’t. But don’t feel sorry for this Lethbridge College alumnus (Communication Arts ’91) if you’re any sort of sports fan; he’s hung out with some of the best athletes of two professional sports in three cities since graduation.

Vidalin, originally from Edmonton, started university in his hometown, but wanted a course of study more applicable to what he craved: a life in sport. He switched to Lethbridge College to study broadcast journalism thinking that might be the way in, but discovered there was more money to be made in marketing and public relations.

“There were good opportunities in broadcasting, but the money was more attractive on the PR side,” says Vidalin, who married while in college and by then had a child. Texans supporters may not realize, but part of the magic Vidalin and his crew manage to weave 10 times a year began on the campus of Lethbridge College, where he learned his trade.

“It was real-world experience, from the local broadcasts with Ian Mandin, the writing and the commercials, all in small classes and hands-on work,” says Vidalin, who wrote a public service announcement for the Canadian Cancer Society while in school that won a national award.

Today, in the high-power world of professional sports, Vidalin plays every down with intensity. Selling football to the folks of Texas might seem like a marketer’s dream, but this is the NFL, and every inch counts. The Texans answer all e-mails and phone calls received from fans, conduct J.D. Power surveys and hold focus-group sessions to ensure they are giving their customers a great ride on those Sundays at Reliant.

“We’re selling a little part of a dream,” he says. “We’re creating moments to remember for people, whether they’re die-hard fans or kids at their first game. Our mantra is to create raving fans and be the most valued and respected sports franchise on the planet.”

Vidalin has carried that attitude with him since he left Lethbridge College, and still attributes his success to the practical experience he gained on campus. It’s also the driving force behind his determination to be involved with post-secondary institutions in almost every community in which he’s lived. He sits on the advisory committee of a sports marketing program at a Houston university and helps place students in internship programs with sports organizations across the country.

For four years following graduation, he worked back in Edmonton for Alberto- Culver, the folks who produce Alberto VO5 and other hair-care products, advancing to key accounts manager in Calgary. It was a good job, but it wasn’t sports. Then a friend working for the Calgary Flames suggested his future might lie with the NHL club. “I sat down with Lanny McDonald (then the Flames vice-president) and was put in charge of new sponsor relationships,” says Vidalin. “It was a year of a substantial renovation to the Saddledome, and sponsorships were important to the team’s financial success.”

It was 1994 and Vidalin was back in the game, at least what there was of it: the season was slashed to 48 games by a lockout that kept teams off the ice until January. Still, the Flames made the playoffs, even if only for one round. It was a taste of the big time and Vidalin was hooked. Later promoted to director of marketing, he stayed with the team until 2000.

For a year afterward, Vidalin worked for an ad agency based in Saskatchewan that had expanded into Calgary. The work was all right, but it lacked the excitement with which he had become addicted with the Flames.

“I missed the sports side of the business,” he says. “About that time, an opportunity came up with the Washington Capitals. They had a new ownership and needed someone to “manage their evolving brand and their marketing efforts”.

So of course he took the Washington job in 2001 and of course there was a lockout in 2004; this one blotted out an entire season and job security became a consideration.

“I loved it there, but it became an issue of how long the lockout would last and whether there would be pay cuts and job losses.”

With two daughters to consider, Vidalin kept his options open. When the NFL’s Texans made an offer four years ago, he and wife Carol took Amy and Allison, now 17 and 15, to Houston to scout the landscape. They liked what they saw. “The city just seemed right for us,” he says. “It’s a lot like Calgary, from the culture of rodeo to the friendliness of the people and the entrepreneurial spirit.”

When Vidalin arrived, the Texans, who entered the league in 2002, were still finding themselves. They were owned by Robert McNair, the same guy who, five years earlier tried to bring the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers to Houston. Blasphemy? Maybe, but remember, Houston is closely tied through sports to Edmonton through the Eskimos; it’s where Warren Moon and Hugh Campbell found post-CFL success with – wait for it – the Oilers.

At any rate, the Oilers (rink variety) stayed put in Alberta and the Oilers (gridiron variety) left Houston for Tennessee. It was this abandonment of Houston by their beloved football team in 1997 that convinced McNair to drop his NHL bid and focus on football.

“Mr. McNair is the reason the game is in Houston,” says Vidalin. “And, he’s a great guy to work for.”

What the Texans have not necessarily accomplished on the field, they have in the stands, thanks to, in part, Vidalin’s understanding of what it takes to give fans the best experience he can on their 10 home dates each season. How does a guy who grew up watching, and later working, in hockey feel about the game of football?

“Hockey, because of its constant action, is great to watch live, while I always enjoyed football more on TV, great for the replays etc.,” he says. “So it comes down to the ‘game experience’ for the fans. I feel we put together a phenomenal and memorable game-day experience.”

Hockey fans, he notes, arrive at the arena just before game time and leave once the final buzzer sounds; football fans make the day last.

Regardless, game day at Reliant Stadium, home of the Texans, is a fullmeal deal, literally: it starts with tailgate parties and barbecue. Roughly 30,000 fans pull into the parking lot with mobile units worth more than a sub-prime mortgage to share food, beer and vie for NFL “Tailgater of the Year.”

Once the game begins, hard-core fans hang out in Reliant’s “Bullpen,” an end zone section where collars of blue and white mix in passionate celebration of red, white and blue.

It’s a locale where a good Alberta boy would feel most comfortable, with folks John Vidalin understands. It may be a long way on the map from Lethbridge College, but the lessons learned remain similar: put people first.

Wider Horizons
Peter Scott
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