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Friday night at ubc, the 1982 Western Canada finals, and the home team Thunderbirds were an undefeated juggernaut captained by star defensive back David Sidoo. At the start of the second half, the visiting Manitoba Bisons kicked off. Sidoo, who doubled as a kick returner, caught the ball and bolted upfield. Ninety-six yards later he was in the end zone, touchdown. “Nobody even laid a hand on me,” reminisces Sidoo, now 54. When it ended, the scoreboard read 57-3. The jubilation was dizzying.
The Thunderbirds went on to seize the school’s first national championship in football. Sidoo moved up to the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders before becoming a heavyweight partner at swashbuckling Yorkton Securities in the ‘90s. In 2010, American Oil & Gas Inc., where he was a founding shareholder, sold for US$675 million — not bad for a kid from New Westminster whose dad moved to Canada in the early 1950s and, with his wife, raised a family of five on a sawmill salary of $12,000 a year.
UBC, meanwhile, won two more Vanier Cups but since 2000 has lost more games than it has won. Then last fall, an emergency. A review appeared of the massive roster of 29 varsity sports at UBC. Cuts were coming, and football was in trouble. UBC’s most expensive sport ran upward of an estimated $800,000 a season, an eighth of the total varsity athletics spend.
Sidoo hearing the news, resolved to take on the situation as a business challenge. He called together five successful football alumni, including David Negrin, president of the various business operations of the billionaire Aquilini family, and Bruce Young, principal of big-time political lobbyist Earnscliffe Strategy Group’s B.C. business and, in politics, Justin Trudeau’s main organizer in the province. “Guys put their hand up,” says Sidoo, dressed in a black Gucci zip-up jacket and 7 for All Mankind jeans. He sits in the small boardroom of his new venture, East West Petroleum Corp., which has a view of the harbour and the North Shore.
The group drew ideas from successful, corporate-backed football programs around the country. All the top teams have budgets of more than a million dollars. Sidoo’s business plan wants to start with a $2.4 million ante raised by the six, then double it to generate a couple hundred thousand a year to spend, plus another $250,000 or so from sponsorships — cash that would get UBC into the league of the best. Stage 2: along with UBC, rouse athletic alumni, pull in corporate sponsorships, and eventually redevelop aging Thunderbird Stadium for housing, with the dream of a new arena to serve football and other sports. The scheme would not only pay for a significantly buoyed football team but would help fund scholarships in other disciplines such as women’s swimming.
Sidoo, already a big donor, got the ear of decision makers on campus. UBC liked what it heard. Crunch time came in January. “This review is vital to the future health of UBC athletics,” president Stephen Toope had declared. Football survived. Disaster averted, Sidoo and friends launched the next step: to hire a general manager for a renewed football program.
“I assume we’re going to be wildly successful,” says Young, an offensive lineman in his playing days. He hadn’t met Sidoo until the call to action. “He’s a solid cat — and a citizen. You don’t always see that with business guys these days.”
For Sidoo, football was an immigrant boy’s springboard into Canada. “It didn’t matter I was East Indian. It didn’t matter I was the first Indo-Canadian in the CFL. All that mattered was that I was a good football player. Sports are just so galvanizing. You’re one team, all doing it together.”
Thunderbird rivals who’ve found success through corporate sponsorship:
Rouge et Or
Founded in 1996, the team has won eight Vanier Cups
McMaster University Hamilton, Ontario
The last non-Laval winner, in 2011
Their football program was eliminated in the late 1990s amid a fiscal crunch and resurrected by private funds last year