In August 2018, Aimee Deziel stepped into what many call ‘the hardest job in Ottawa’ as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the Ottawa Senators (although to be fair… we think the hardest job is probably held by Justin Trudeau).
Why is this job so difficult? Because after making it all the way to the Conference Finals in the 2016-17 season, the Sens had a disappointing 2017-18 season and 2018-19 hasn’t been much better. There have been issues with the Sens owner and management, drama amongst players and their wives, and some big trades. Most notably, this September they traded away the best defenceman that had ever graced their ice. Needless to say Sens fans have been feeling frustrated. And rightly so.
Although things haven’t been looking great on the ice this season (the Sens are currently last in the Eastern Conference… welp), things are looking up in the back office. Cue Aimee. Aimee as CMO is refreshing AF. First off, she’s a woman. Less than 5% of executives in pro sports are women, so this is a BFD. Next, she doesn’t have a classic hockey
bro background. She’s a fan just like you and me. So, she truly understands Sens fans and is 110% committed to turning the franchise around. Deziel is a fireball of energy, chutzpah, and will certainly not tolerate any BS.
Earlier this month, The GIST had the pleasure of sitting down with Aimee for an interview to help spotlight women in the Sens organization. We asked Aimee about everything from the influence of sports in her life growing up to how she handles marketing after scandals like the, um, Uber situation, to if she prefers Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes. Let’s get to know Aimee.
Aimee grew up in Windsor, Ontario and like everyone in that area, was torn between supporting the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Detroit Red Wings. As much as Aimee loved playing sports as a kid, she never played team sports as she felt “too much responsibility for her teammates and that kind of stressed her out.” Still, she participated in individual sports as a competitive gymnast and an avid runner (she’s still super active and can be found snowboarding, at the gym, playing tennis and well, still running). And, her love of these sports has never faded. As a tennis fan, she used to have annual tickets to the US Open (the dream). Her faves to watch are Danish Caroline Wozniacki and Milos Raonic.
Aimee (right) after a gymnastics competition.
Moving to the Capital City
After growing up in Windsor, Aimee made her way to Ottawa to pursue an International Business degree at Carleton University. Having grown up in a bilingual household (English and French), languages came naturally to her, making International Business a natural fit. She took the gamut of business classes but what really clicked with her was marketing. It became abundantly clear that that’s what she was going to go into after school.
This is where things start to get exciting and where Aimee’s drive and get-sh!t-done attitude start to shine through. As soon as she graduated, she started hunting down marketing agencies that she wanted to work for.
“I literally walked into the offices of an up-and-coming agency called Acme Advertising and said: “You don't need to pay me - I'll literally empty garbages and run errands.’ But what I knew was that if I was in their face, and made an impression, I would get a job.”
That’s exactly what happened. Aimee not only got the job, but ended up being assigned one of the agency’s largest accounts - the National Gallery of Canada. Damn girl, get it. But that’s not all. While working at her next gig, Thornley Fallis Communications, Aimee noticed that there was an opportunity to capitalize on the internet and digital media, rather than rely on the traditional communication channels within the company. The company had a small creative team called 76design, which was struggling to establish itself. So, she approached her boss and said, “give me six months and let me see what I can do to grow this segment of the business.”
Five years later, Aimee was leaving the company after profitably growing the digital media division to over 25 people, surpassing the size of the traditional communications side!
Next Step in Her Career
From there, Aimee was ready for a new challenge. She went on to work for a consumer-facing, domain-holding company, based out of the Barbados (honestly could use a trip to the Barbados right now) called Rebel.com. She started as the company’s CMO. However, given her prior experience, she felt like she had marketing “pretty well-licked” so moved on to work in other areas of the business to get a more well-rounded business experience. With stops in the company’s finance department, business development, and human resources department, Aimee finally went on to become the Chief Operating Officer. With the breadth of learning from working in these different areas of the business, Aimee felt she had effectively given herself an MBA.
Aimee’s biggest piece of career advice is to work in fields that you are curious about. She learned enough to know when someone was “bullsh!tting” (again… no BS taken here) her and should be challenged, and honed her leadership experiences along the way.
What Brought Her to the Sens
That’s how it all ties back to the Sens organization. It was new COO Neic Ruszkowski, who Aimee first met while working at 76design who brought up the opportunity for the CMO gig with the Sens and she was really intrigued. When we started talking about the Sens during the interview, you could sense the energy and passion Aimee has for this team. She had a glimmer in her eye, started speaking faster, and had this infectious aura of excitement about her.
Aimee totally recognizes that “they’re not the most high-profile team and they’re not the best team in the league right now.” BUT she’s confident that will change. Despite growing up in Windsor, she considers Ottawa her hometown, and thinks that Ottawa - both the city and the team - has never fully received the credit it deserves. It’s squished between two Original Six teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, and is a “young” team in comparison (The Sens were just founded in 1992). However, the city is beautiful, is complete with amazing people and history, and full of avid and extremely passionate hockey fans.
One of our favourite things Aimee said was on the potential and likability of this young team:
“We deserve to have a little bit of swagger and we don’t have any right now in my opinion. And I think that’s changing, but this is a city that deserves it. Toronto just gets to lay claim to their history and their success, but because we’re new, we don’t get to do that? I don’t buy that.”
The Ottawa Senators aren’t owned by a massive corporation. The franchise was bootstrapped together. People wanted to bring the NHL experience to Ottawa, and Aimee believes it’s a privilege to be able to bring the beautiful game to the city of Ottawa. Day in and day out, the players go out there and play for their city and their fans, and they deserve to know that they have a loyal fanbase behind them. As Aimee put it “look, I love this team a whole lot, and Ottawa deserves to be proud of it.”
What She Does as a CMO
Aimee’s day-to-day is always different. There are two seasons for her: in-season, where the focus is on fan engagement, membership season where it’s time to thank their season seat members and secure their support for the next season, and off-season, which involves planning for the in-season. Most days, much of her time is spent on strategy and meetings. The strategy is, for the most part, divided into five areas: branding, fan experience (in and outside the arena), community engagement (things like getting the Sens players out into the community), traditional and digital marketing, as well as sales. At the same time, some days she finds herself on the ground, doing things like rolling player posters for an event. It’s all hands on deck, including Aimee’s, when something calls for it.
In 2019, Aimee’s major focus is on the Sens’ branding. Right now, she’s not convinced that there is one clear brand direction for the Sens… that if someone were to describe the Sens in three words, every single person would have a different descriptor. And, as a marketing guru (our words, not Aimee’s), she knows that needs to change. She’s working hard on answering the questions: “What is the brand identity and the brand personality of the Sens? And how does that transcend from the top of the organization to the day-to-day fan?”
Her Take on Women in the Hockey World
Aimee doesn’t have a hockey background and she often finds herself being one of the only women in the room. But, she doesn’t let this faze her. She “strongly believes that being a fan makes her incredibly qualified to deliver an experience to others.” Sound familiar, GISTers?
Unlike those that have grown their careers in the hockey world she has grown up a fan and totally gets all the emotion of the fan experience. She understands different fan profiles and what motivates them to go to a game. Her role is not in the management of a team or selecting players... her job is to help Ottawa fall in love with the team again.
To that end, Aimee thinks that sometimes we can get “caught up” in gender, or being the only woman in the room. Women working in sports isn’t a new or particularly novel phenomenon. At least on the business side, the industry is fairly progressive when it comes to hiring for knowledge and experience regardless of gender.
We should point out that of the eight directors that report to Aimee, four are women, and she’s hired three of those four since she’s been at the marketing helm. Outside of gender diversity, she thinks that all types of diversity - from race, to religion, to age or socioeconomic background - will lead to a stronger Sens organization (and any business). “Our organization should be reflective of the community we live in. Appealing to a diverse audience is the key to growing the fan base.”
Questions from our GISTers
We opened some interview questions up to our community of GISTfluencers (those that have three friends and more to our ) and they hit Aimee with some hard questions about the downtown arena, how you bounce back from trading a franchise player like Erik Karlsson and the Uber situation.
The Sens are one of only three teams in the NHL that don’t have an arena downtown and it’s been a serious point of contention for Sens fans. We’re happy to report some good news: the Sens are “committed and motivated to finding a solution to the downtown arena.” It’s a nuanced situation and there are a lot of factors at play, so it’s more of a five-year proposition.
In the meantime, Aimee says it’s her job to make the current arena experience the best thing possible for Sens fans AND to develop a team and brand personality that deserve a downtown arena. Aimee doesn’t think the Sens are quite there yet.
Uber Fiasco & Trading Karlsson
For Aimee, she explained that she has to focus on what she can control. Both trading Karlsson (which happened before Aimee started) and the Uber fiasco (click to see), were out of her control. However, she did say (and we totally agree) that the Uber thing was blown out of proportion. At the end of the day, it was a group of hockey players in a car talking about hockey. It’s great to see them engaged and talking about hockey. And yes, they smack-talked their coach, but to Aimee’s point, haven’t we all sh!t-talked our bosses at one time or another? Of course we have.
How to Engage New Fans
Instead of focusing on the stuff she can’t control or doing reconn, she’s focusing on the fans. The Sens have seen over 12% annual growth in seat sales for their casual fans, showing that she’s doing something right. She is determined to find a way to have people opt to go to a Sens game instead of going out to dinner, to a bar
Aimee and her team are also focusing on how they can engage all types of fans, including women and those new to Canada as well as younger fans. Her team is reevaluating how they leverage socials like Instagram and Snapchat and are looking into communicating with younger fans through messenger and SMS. For these new(er) fan groups, they’re finding ways for non-hockey players to grow into huge fans. As Aimee put it:
“I’ve never played a game of hockey in my entire life but I am a HUGE fan. We’re really trying to create that fandom and that tribe around hockey, which includes all types of fans.”
The Fun Stuff
To finish, we did a set of rapid fire questions with Aimee where she only had 10 seconds to answer each question. Here we go:
Ottawa O, classic “centurion” or something new?
Something new (potentially foreshadowing something to come, Sens fans!)
We know that you run a charity that improves access to essential vet care for pets of economically disadvantaged owners…and that the Sens are also training Rookie the guide dog... so this might be a hard hitting question: Cats or dogs?
You used to work in baseball… so do you think the Blue Jays will make the playoffs this year?
Yes (wishful thinking that we appreciate, but editor’s note: this is v unlikely)
Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes?
Shania Twain or Alessia Cara?
Do you think Ottawa will ever get a CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) team?
Who wins the Stanley Cup this year?
Tampa Bay Lightning
Aimee had nothing but great things to say, not only about the Tampa team, but also the organization. She gave kudos to the entire team and even admitted she’s got a career crush.
So Sens fans, as much as things might be bleak right now, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There are some fresh faces (including Aimee’s) that are committed to challenging the status quo and getting the organization back on its feet. Yes, there’s going to be a rebuild, but as the saying goes, patience grasshopper.
For those of you that aren’t Sens fans but are looking to get more into the sports or hockey industry, we think Aimee is a great inspiration. She’s taking something a lot of people would find a disadvantage - little experience in the sports world - and turning it into a massive positive. She’s embraced how being a true fan of the game actually helps her fully understand fans and provide the fans with what they’re looking for. That perspective in this “old man’s club” sports world is incredibly refreshing.
After news broke that the Toronto Raptors Training Centre was renamed to the OVO Athletic Centre on Thursday, The GIST had the opportunity to interview Raptors President, Masai Ujiri.
To give you some background, Ujiri’s been the Raps’ fearless and progressive leader since May 2013. Ujiri was born in Africa and moved to the U.S. to play college basketball. While Ujiri only played a couple years of pro in Europe, he’s excelled on the business side of sport. While he spent some time with the Denver Nuggets, the majority of Ujiri’s career has been in Toronto, first as assistant general manager, then general manager and now president. And, he’s the real deal. In 2013, he was named NBA Executive of the Year - the first non-American to receive the honour.
More importantly, he’s an activist. He founded Giants of Africa, a non-profit organization with a mission to use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of the youth of Africa. On top of that he’s also been the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program which promotes basketball throughout the continent. And, he’s a big supporter of diversity, including the hiring and promoting of women within the Raptors organization.
So, let’s get into our conversation with Masai.
Ellen at The GIST (TG): Congratulations on everything today, some big and exciting news for you guys!
Masai Ujiri (MU): Thank you. Thank you.
TG: We know you’re a busy guy, especially today, so we wanted to ask you some questions about the new deal as well as jump into some other questions that we think our readers would be interested in.
MU: With these things, you talk about them for a long time. You know, you grind at them and you see where it takes you. With Drake, he’s always been a partner of the Raptors. What he does and who he is as person is something we feel tied to and the connection we have is everything.
I’m not too sure exactly how long it took us, but we [Drake, OVO and the Raptors] are always on the same page in terms of where we wanted to get and how we wanted to do this. It was really a natural fit.
Drake is big part of the Raptors family; he is our global ambassador and business partner. He’s a dynamic person that checks every box, which is what’s really cool and unique about Drake as a person.
TG: I’m not too sure how familiar you are with The GIST, but we’re a startup that is part of . We create sports content and experiences that are by women and for women as well as casual sports fans to fill the gap in the current sports media space. And basketball is really big with our audience. This is partly because basketball transcends beyond the court and into our culture through celebrity, politics, you name it. Creating a distinct and diverse culture is something the Raptors have done really well. What do you think has been the secret sauce that has created this culture?
MU: I’m not sure if there is a distinct secret sauce. It’s just the way life works for us. We treat every individual the same in terms of respect and we’re sensitive to everything that people go through. We’re blessed to be doing what what we’re doing. Sports is a blessing and sports bring people together. Altogether that’s what our culture is about. That’s how we see life. What the game has given to us, and what we can give to other people through the game.
Once you have those basic fundamentals, as a team, we’ll outsmart people, we’ll be innovative and creative thinkers, and really do all the things that are necessary to succeed and win.
We want to win on and off the court. This is just us trying to play a game that is beautiful to us.
TG: I’m sure you know this, but by the age of 14 girls drop out of organized sport at over twice the rate of boys. There’s a number of reasons causing this, but, what can the sport of basketball do and what are the Raptors doing to help change this so that women stay in sports?
MU: The first thing we’ve done is hired women. We’re in the forefront of putting women in great positions to be successful. We treat everyone the same and create parity in that regard. Young girls will see those women as role models and will hopefully participate in basketball as a sport as they grow up. As Raptors fans, as people that love the game, and as leaders, we need to create a platform for not only women but girls to strive and to achieve too.
TG: Why do you, yourself personally, think it’s important to have women in those roles both on the business side as well as player side of sports whether it’s coaching, player development and managing?
MU: Well, I think women are talented and women are good at what they do. Women are more caring, more thoughtful and more patient at everything. We’ve seen the positive effect of all the great women we’ve hired and how they continue to contribute to the success of our team.
TG: Alright Masai, we know you’re a busy guy so we have two fun questions to wrap things up: first, do you ever see a WNBA team coming to Toronto?
MU: That’s a tough question to answer. You know, sports is a business, and you dream of those kind of things so hopefully one day we see it happen. [Editor’s Note: He didn’t say no!]
TG: And lastly, what’s your favourite Drake song or lyric?
TG: We love both of those songs too. So, that wraps up everything. Thanks so much for your time today Masai and good luck with the playoffs! We hope we’ll be speaking to you sometime soon.
MU: Thank you too, appreciate it. This was fun!
⚽In the words of The Ashleys, “Scandalous!”
The GIST: In the ongoing saga of the US women’s national soccer team (USWNT) trying to prove their worth, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) is now saying they don’t have the same skills as the men. *insert eye-roll emoji here*
I’m sorry, what?!: Our thoughts exactly. As you may remember, the USWNT filed a lawsuit against the USSF last year, on the grounds of gender discrimination. The lawsuit argues that the women are paid significantly less while generating more revenue than the men. But now the USSF is arguing that women don’t deserve equal pay because their jobs don’t demand as much skill and they don’t have the same responsibilities as the men.
- We’re sorry, but are they trying to say that playing soccer is “less” of a job as a woman? And they’re right, the women don’t have the same responsibilities, they have more — the responsibility to win. Do we have to remind them that the women have won four FIFA World Cups and the men have won zero?
So what happens now?: The lawsuit will now go to a jury trial, where it will be decided whether or not the USSF violated the Equal Pay Act, and if so, whether the USWNT will receive back pay of up to $67 million. In the meantime, the team will continue to play.
- Just last night, the USWNT won the SheBelieves Cup, with a 3–1 win over Japan. Before the match, the women took a team picture with their jerseys turned inside out to hide the US Soccer logo. Spicy.
Any other scandals I should know about?: You mean, besides whatever TF happened on The Bachelor season finale? Yes. On Monday, 27 people were charged in a doping scheme that involved administering performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses. Horrible.
- Those charged include trainers and veterinarians. And get this: one of the affected horses is Maximum Security, who almost won last year’s Kentucky Derby and just won $10 million in the Saudi Cup. As if the world isn’t already enough of a dumpster fire, now we’re drugging horses?! If we could facepalm, we would (but we can’t, because, no face-touching!).
🏀How to save a life
The GIST: WNBA superstar Maya Moore has always been a winner on the court, but now she’s a winner in court too. Moore put her All-Star career on pause to help 39-year-old Jonathan Irons get released from prison, and after 22 years in jail, his initial conviction was overturned on Monday.
Whoa! Remind me who she is: You got it. For one, the former Minnesota Lynx star is arguably the greatest winner in women’s basketball history: she’s a four-time (!!!) WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time EuroLeague Women’s champ and two-time NCAA champion at UConn. All she does is win, win, win!
- And she did it all in style. She’s a six-time WNBA All-Star with three All-Star MVPs, a 2014 WNBA MVP, a 2013 Finals MVP and a two-time college player of the year.
Amazing! Now what’s this about court?: In early 2019, Moore took a sabbatical in order to advocate for relieving Jonathan Irons of a 50-year sentence he received in 1998. He was convicted of burglarizing and assaulting a man with a weapon in his St. Louis, Missouri, home. The homeowner testified against Irons, and he was convicted by an all-white jury without any physical evidence. Irons, who has always maintained his innocence, was just 16 at the time but was still tried and charged as an adult.
Horrible. So how does Moore play into this?: Thanks in part to the effort and attention Moore brought to the case, the judge vacated his convictions for burglary and assault and ordered that he be released from maximum security prison.
- We think that of all her career victories, this one has to be the most special, and proves why athletes shouldn’t just “stick to sports.”
Incredible! So what’s next?: Following the monumental win, on Tuesday Moore doubled down on her earlier declaration that she’d be missing this upcoming WNBA season, her second in a row, to take time to handle “some of the pressing things” in her life. So, as much as we’d love to see the legend back on the hardwood, it looks like we’ll have to wait one more year. And she’s completely worth the wait.
🏀I just need some alone time
The GIST: It just keeps getting worse. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and the sports world...kind of did too.
Scary. What’s happening?: Unfortunately, a lot. The biggest news came late last night when the NBA decided to SUSPEND THE ENTIRE SEASON. Take a minute to let that settle in. The league’s Board of Governors had been considering their options in the days leading up to the announcement, but last night’s game between the Oklahoma City (OKC) Thunder and the Utah Jazz was the catalyst.
Why?: Well, earlier in the week, the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS made a joint decision to limit media access, restricting entry to locker rooms and asking media to maintain a safe distance from the players.
- And, in an effort to prove the media ban was unnecessary, Jazz player Rudy Gobert then “jokingly” made a point of physically touching every microphone and recorder after the Jazz’s game on Monday.
That was dumb!: Tell us about it. Gobert was then listed as “questionable” for last night’s OKC-Jazz game due to illness, and seconds before the game was due to start, the Jazz’s team doctor halted play with the news that Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. C’mon, man.
- The league initially decided to postpone the game, but within an hour, they made the decision to suspend the rest of the NBA season. We’re shook. We have no idea what this means: the league could resume play if things clear up, end the season as is and go right into the playoffs or just cancel it outright. Only time will tell.
Wow, this is wild!: And that's not all! Earlier in the day, the NCAA announced that March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament, will be played without fans. Instead, only limited family members and essential staff will be allowed to attend games. So, so wild.
- March Madness is one of the most lucrative sporting events in the world. Last season’s tournament brought in $933 million, with ticket revenue accounting for $160 million. You know it’s a BFD when the NCAA is turning down that much dough.
Anything else?: In the NHL, the San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets will play their home games in empty arenas for the time being, with the league set to provide an update at some point today, and this week’s BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament (largely considered the “fifth grand slam”) in California and next week’s World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal have been canceled. Just brutal.
And the rest of the world?: In England, players and staff of the Arsenal soccer team are quarantined after being in contact with Evangelos Marinakis, the owner of Olympiakos FC. Arsenal played Olympiakos FC last week and Marinakis has since tested positive for COVID-19. Italian soccer player Daniele Rugani, who plays for Juventus with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, has also tested positive.
- Meanwhile, down in Australia, three Formula 1 team crew members are in isolation after they began to show symptoms ahead of Sunday’s season-opening race in Melbourne. Luckily, a new season of F1: Drive to Survive just came out, so at least they can binge-watch that while quarantined.
What’s next?: Who knows?! The NFL is still monitoring the situation as it relates to next month’s Draft, and the world is anxiously awaiting a ruling from the International Olympic Committee on the Summer Olympics. Honestly, it’s all a lot to keep up on, so follow along here or keep a close eye on our Twitter for all the biggest updates.