March 27, 2024

Anthony Partipilo savours six years of Brand-new experiences in Saskatchewan

Over 12 seasons as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization, Anthony Partipilo witnessed an assortment of tape-measure home runs.

His subsequent sporting journey began with a tape-measure walk.

Upon landing at Regina International Airport in mid-February of 2018, Partipilo travelled 2½ kilometres on foot — accompanied by one piece of carry-on luggage — to Mosaic Stadium for an introductory interview that ultimately led to his appointment as the first Chief Brand Officer in Saskatchewan Roughriders history.

He could have hailed a taxi or rented a car, but it wouldn’t have been the same.

“Obviously, I hit a really good spot weather-wise, because apparently there was a major storm a day or two before I arrived,” recalls Partipilo, whose retirement from his senior management position with the Roughriders takes effect at the conclusion of Wednesday’s business day.

“I happened to be coming in on a day when it was only minus-3 or minus-4. The sun was shining — and I love the sun and the sky in Saskatchewan. It’s way more sun than you get in Ontario and it’s not grey and overcast all the time. It’s just beautiful sunshine.

“I was inspired to walk. I wanted to get a feel for what it was like here, because I didn’t know what it was like. So here I am, going to interview for this job in Regina, in Saskatchewan, for the first time. I wanted to get an idea of, ‘What is it going to be like to live here?’

“That walk really made a big difference.”

So did Partipilo over the course of six very eventful years with this community-owned Canadian Football League franchise.

“Over the course of his time here with the Riders, he helped change the way we understand our passionate fan base,” says Roughriders President-CEO Craig Reynolds, who feels that Partipilo’s multi-faceted skill set made him the perfect fit for the Chief Brand Officer position when it was posted.

“On top of changing our language and understanding of our fans, Anthony continually increased our level of professionalism and helped to continue to elevate our Brand.”

He did so while applying a wealth of experience and expertise in retail sales, ticketing, partnerships, marketing, digital communications, game-day presentation and media relations.

“He challenged us to always put our Brand top of mind and maintain the highest level of professionalism in our Brand voice and output,” Reynolds continued.

“He has built an outstanding Brand team filled with immensely talented individuals, which is as important of a legacy as anything else.”

Those contributions were made after he had already left a legacy with the Blue Jays, with whom he was the Managing Director, Merchandising (from 2004 to 2009) and Vice-President, Marketing and Merchandising (2009 to 2016).

In the latter capacity, he led the rebranding of Canada’s Major League Baseball team, including the introduction of a new logo and redesigned uniforms. He also spearheaded the Blue Jays’ “Canada’s Team” Brand strategy and created the Jays Shop retail and merchandise operation.

And, yes, he was at the Rogers Centre on Oct. 14, 2015, when the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista performed his memorable bat-flip after hitting a three-run, go-ahead home run against the Texas Rangers in the fifth and deciding game of an American League Divisional Series.

Right off the bat, Partipilo immersed himself in his position with Canada’s Team, CFL-style.

“I began in April of 2018, two weeks after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash,” he notes. “We spent the next six weeks dedicated to helping the Humboldt organization through one of the most difficult times the province has had emotionally.

“It was really a story that resonated around the world and it was a massive responsibility prior to the opening of the football season. Everyone in the organization came together to do whatever it could to help out.

“We had meetings two or three times a week — long meetings, for three or four hours. There were a lot of tears shed with the organization as we tried to put together these programs to help them out.”

Along the way, the Toronto-born Partipilo developed an appreciation for this province and its people.

“Saskatchewan has got a big heart,” he says. “I felt it from the moment I arrived — when I took that first walk to Mosaic Stadium from the airport.

“Almost from the very beginning, I found that the people I met didn’t have their guard up. In Toronto, everybody sort of walks around with their guard up or with some persona going on. There was none of that here.

“I am who I am. I’m very happy being who I am. I am open to embracing you and am open to giving you the mutual respect that I expect from you as well.

“I just found that there was this openness and this welcoming nature. I kept saying, ‘This feels like home.’ ”

The current Mosaic Stadium was a brand-new home for the Roughriders when Partipilo joined the organization not even a year after the first CFL game was played at the state-of-the-art facility.

Very quickly, a plan was put in place to hold a CFL championship game at the venue and to bring a fourth Grey Cup Festival to Saskatchewan.

“It was in August of 2018 when we decided we were going to bid on the 2020 Grey Cup,” Partipilo says. “It took about 2½ to three months to put together the bid process and put together a team and to present a bid to the (CFL) committee in the fall of 2018. Then we had to put plans in place for what that would entail (if and when the bid was approved).
“It wasn’t necessarily as straightforward as one would assume where you could focus on a lot of the day-to-day sports and entertainment types of things.

“The responsibility of the Riders exceeds in many ways what other sports organizations have as responsibility in their markets and among their fan base — and that wasn’t fully appreciated until I got here.”

Why is there such a responsibility?

“I think it’s the singular focus around a sports team,” he replies. “The hopes and dreams and aspirations of an entire province are wrapped up behind a sports team and behind one sports organization.

“In most other markets, if not every other market, there’s always another team, or other teams, that fans can move to if one team is not doing well. They can move from one team to another, back and forth.

“That awesome responsibility is the responsibility of the Riders and it comes after a legacy of 114 years of really being the symbol and source of pride for this entire province.”

Yet, there were fears that it could all come to an end after 110 years due to the effects of a global pandemic.

COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 CFL season, which was to be punctuated by a Saskatchewan-based Grey Cup Festival.

“We were truly in a crisis,” Partipilo says. “How are we going to survive? How are we going to keep the lights on without an ability to generate revenue?

“We had to dig deep. We couldn’t panic, although we felt like panicking. We all were dealing with the pandemic individually with our families.

“And then there was the issue of, ‘How do we get together in a room?’ We had to space ourselves out as a team, but then find a way to put together creative ideas to generate revenue, and a number of programs and initiatives came from that.

“That really helped to keep the lights on for the Club and put us back in a good place, but there was really the fear of the unknown.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen to us and how long the pandemic was going to last. One year? Two years? Three years? Nobody knew. Unless you’ve been through that, you can’t possibly imagine what that is like.

“But I had made a decision to move my family out here and begin a new life. I got in my car (and embarked for Toronto) and I picked up my wife (Sara) and drove her back across the country with no ability to stop at a restaurant or at a restroom.
“There was nothing open. Everything was closed. I didn’t want to sleep in hotels, so I just drove.”

That being done, he was driven to contribute to the Roughriders’ return to the field in 2021. One year later, new Mosaic Stadium finally played host to a Grey Cup.

At that point, Partipilo had encountered a whirlwind of emotions and some once-unimaginable circumstances over his first four years with the Roughriders.

A highlight was the team’s 13-5 record in 2019 and its second first-place finish since 1977. Also of note, the Green and White played host to playoff games in 2018, 2019 and 2021.

At the other end of the spectrum, there was the devastation resulting from the Humboldt tragedy and the immense impact of COVID-19.

Through it all, Partipilo’s commitment to the Roughriders’ organization and the province of Saskatchewan was steadfast.

“I think it was important that I did this not only for myself, but also because it was important for the Club,” he says.

“I believe that, over the last six years, it was important to have as many resources as possible to be able to manage through all the different crises.

“Did we make all the right decisions? No, but we made the best decisions that we could possibly make under very difficult circumstances.

“I believe that we have a young, vibrant, talented team that we had to rebuild after 2020 because we lost a lot of staff during the pandemic. We’ve got amazing people here who helped to build and put together those teams.

“We have a great culture. We have a young, smart collaborative work force that is passionate about the Brand, so leaving wasn’t hard from the standpoint of being worried about the future. I think the future of the Club is in stable hands.

“We’ve got amazing leadership with Craig and Kent (Paul, Chief Financial Officer) leading the ship. Obviously, the changes made on the football side have been amazing this year, so there’s lots of hope for the future, but it was time for me to transition.”

Into what?

“I don’t know, exactly, and that’s what makes it a little more difficult,” says Partipilo, who will maintain an active interest in the Roughriders as a season-ticket member and shareholder. “Throughout my life, I’ve always known what that next thing is, but now I don’t know.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from doing things that have an impact on people. I learned that when I joined the Blue Jays. Seeing the passion and the excitement on people’s faces really gave me a huge uplift at the time.

“I saw the impact that sports and entertainment can have on people’s lives. Looking at it from that perspective, from the inside out, was very illuminating.

“I caught the bug. I didn’t want to do anything else.”

With that in mind, he spent nearly 20 years enhancing two of the top sporting Brands in Canada.

“I would say that it has been one heck of a ride,” reflects Partipilo, barely six years removed from that mild, momentous day when he didn’t need a ride at all.