Russell Kovshoff is the Director of Game Entertainment & Events at Saskatchewan Roughrider Football Club Inc. Russell Kovshoff has an incredibly interesting story. The season before the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Championship, Russell Kovshoff played a huge role in the team’s game day presentation efforts as a Coordinator. Without giving much away, he even spent time as the Toronto Raptors replacement mascot Stripes (now the official mascot for the Raptors 905) for a while. I chatted with Russell last week about his path to working in game day and events with the Roughriders. For this feature, Russell dives into the process he took to work in sports, dating back to when he was a 12-year-old boy volunteering for the Toronto Argonauts. His passion, dedication, energy, and enthusiasm are off the charts. Throughout our chat, I was riveted by the many insights Russell provides and vivid examples he gives for turning a passion into career. Now it’s your turn to take in my entertaining, colourful and educational conversation with Russell Kovshoff below.
Tell us about your role as the Director of Game entertainment and Events with Saskatchewan Roughriders?
My role as Director of Game Entertainment and Events with the Saskatchewan Roughriders is fairly wide-ranging. There are two sides in particular that I toggle between.
1 Experiential Marketing
For one, I’m in charge of all experiential marketing for the Roughriders. I do our major events. This includes the production and full layout from start to finish of events.
In the full layout, I am responsible for planning, programming, working with suppliers, and making sure we have everything we need to make events happen.
2 Game Presentation
A huge part of my role with the Roughriders consists of managing our game day and event talent. I’m in charge of the full production of game day. This means that as soon as fans come to the stadium, from our pre-game party to the end of the game, I am in charge of the entertainment.
I’m in charge of the layout of that, the programming of that, we have a lot of different pieces to that so you have the community, we have Saskatchewan football there so we make sure the kids can throw footballs around and then the next thing is we have the entertainment outside and working with security and all the other different cultures to makes sure that fans are safe and fan safety is first and foremost take care of, so lots of meetings there.
And then for the game itself, there are 250 elements that go into a game day. It’s my job to make sure that we’re producing new content for each game.
A large part of this is sitting down with editors on videos about players and then working on the backend to make sure those videos are getting done, picking the right music for the right moments and working on the fly. So actually my job is during the game I sit upstairs in the control room and I watch the game, managing the many facets of the game. On the mic, I’ll call out what’s coming up next and change the scripts depending on the flow of the game.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I guess you could say non-game days are more like typical “9 to 5” jobs. But it wouldn’t be right to call it that. That’s because I could spend countless areas working on content. The best way to put it is to say that it depends. It depends on a number of factors. Sometimes, outsiders would look in and say it’s an 8 or 9 day week that I work on non-game days. The good thing about it is that I have a team that works with me consisting of an intern and a coordinator. The non-games days are very planning focused. So, we will work with all parties and make sure that we have all the assets that we need to have in place for our events.
1 Community Events Side
On the events side, it’s a community-focused event working with the community team and working with the community groups as well as all those stakeholders. So our production teams, our entertainment teams who make sure that we’re getting everything in place and that we’re laying out a program and schedule with the fan in mind. That’s on the events side.
2 Game Day Side
The game day aspect of my role with the Roughriders consists of working with my team in the control room
I’m in charge of the control room at Mosaic Stadium. This means all the people who are in there – the 30 people on game days, on top of the 125 entertainers (our hip hop group, cheerleaders, in-game hosts, etc.) work underneath me as well. So, the side of that is planning for game days. Planning consists of choosing songs they prepare to, songs played at certain moments, new elements we are trying to bring forward every game, and theme nights.
I feel like I’m not really answering the question of what a typical day looks like, but it’s a constant… every day is something new. Making sure that we are in the best place to succeed, trusting my staff and working with them and setting them up for success is a large part of what I do.
So you were discussing how you worked with the Raptors, I know you did work the All-Star weekend, obviously, you now work for Saskatchewan so you have all this experience in presenting game day entertainment. When was the point that you realized you were meant to do this?
Good question! When I was 12 years old, I volunteered with the Toronto Argonauts. I did this because of Jerry Maguire, one of my favourite all-time movies. I wanted to be a sports agent. My family supported my vision to become one then too. So, I started off young! During that time, I played football. Being around the game so much, I started to realize all the aspects around the game the excite fans. Getting to see live entertainment events from a firsthand point of view made me really curious and interested.
When I was 16 years old, an opportunity to run a game with the Argos on the live entertainment side to run a game with just one other person. I took it and loved the experience. It was a really good experience for high pressure at a young age.
A year later, I was hired by the Toronto Raptors. This is where I transitioned from game operations behind the scenes to being in front of people, making people cheer, dance, and have a good time overall.
When I was in university, I studied Recreational Sport Business with a concentration in Tourism and I still worked for the Raptors. At the same time, I played varsity football.
I also worked for the Toronto Blue Jays for a couple of seasons. I was working with their junior mascot, aptly named Junior, and I was his handler. This was part of the work I did with the Blue Jays special events team. The year after I was a lead for them on their special event team. So I was getting a lot of different experiences.
When I was with the Raptors, I received the ultimate validation of my work. I was asked to be their interim mascot! The Raptor tore his Achilles, so I filled in as Stripes.
When he returned from injury the following season, we worked really closely together.
Then I was offered a job to become an NBA mascot for a team in the United States. I almost transitioned my career to be a professional sport mascot full-time. But that didn’t work out in the end. Shortly after, an offer came up to work at the Pan Am Games as the Coordinator of Branding, with one of the biggest focuses being the mascot program.
I was the youngest person on my floor and I was creating content for the opening and closing ceremony of the Pam Am Games too.
There, I also worked with the sports presentation, a source to utilize our brand which was the active living brand which was the mascot Patchy.
So, coming up with the entertainment package for him at every single venue and then also managing a team older than me as well. So there was a lot of learning and creating shows and content that I’d done. So, naturally when that ended I had a very good relationship in the international sport industry.
Then, I was still working with the Raptors. But part-time. I wasn’t the mascot any more at that point. But pretty suddenly, a job opening for Coordinator of Game Presentation with the Raptors came about. My mentor Anton Wright was (and still is) the Director of Game Presentation and he taught me the philosophy and strategy for running game presentation.
For me. that was huge learning and then my last year at Raptors, just before they won the championship. That season, I was headhunted by the Roughriders. I received a call from them, we had a chat and then just one thing led to another and I was on my way to Saskatchewan.
There’s a reason I love what I do. I have friends who are police officers and still tell me to come be a cop. Why? Because they tell me, “you’ll make a difference” in the community.
My “making a difference” is somebody coming to a football, basketball or sport event. Taking them outside of their normal day-to-day routine and making them forget about what they are dealing with outside the sport arena. Whether it’s a bad day at work, whether it’s a boyfriend or girlfriend who just broke up with you, whether somebody’s cheated on you, whether someone passed away, or it’s just been a horrible week and you’re negative, I like to provide an escape for fans.
So when we run a video and it makes people laugh, it takes you away from those things. I try to inject humorous, fun and engaging material in all we do.
Entertainment is clearly your passion, so why is this factor of sport the most important to you?
I think when you look at sport; there are two types of fans.
You have the fan that is the “I love football, I want to watch the game” fan. Now traditionally if you look at football, those fans are older. In basketball, that fan is usually younger, but they know the game.
They know the game, they just want to come because they want to watch the game.
Then there’s the majority of the other fans who don’t know the sport don’t really care about the play calling, but they care about the success of the team.
Working Both Sides
They’re in there for the full experience. They’re the families, folks that are maybe not as engaged with the sport growing up, but they like being entertained. So, the reason why I love entertainment is you can appeal to both those people and it’s kind of a very fine line when you’re in-game presentation. The fine line comes because you want to appeal to both those people without disappointing one or the other. So, for fan number one, you want to have lots of stats available for them to see. You also want to have lots of interesting graphics on the screen that explain what just happened. Keeping them engaged throughout the game is key because they’re not going to look as much the stuff you’re doing for fan #2.
For fan #2 from a game presentation perspective, it’s about what music are you playing in the fourth quarter to keep then hyped. It’s about what you are doing during the game to keep their attention. This means paying attention to what cheerleaders and mascots are doing. It’s about paying attention to what’s new and exciting about this game that I haven’t seen before.
Through unique entertainment opportunities, they’re going to have more reason to come. We focused on theme days quite a bit this season with the Roughriders.
We did an 80’s night for example, which was hugely successful. We have an older fan base. People were going back to the 80s and 90s for one game only. It was a lot of fun and we garnered a ton of positive feedback.
I think the biggest thing for entertainment is keeping it fresh, keeping it exciting and keeping it unpredictable. Prior to my being here, they would do exactly the same thing at the exact same time at the exact same moment. We’ve done things differently recently.
Relevance as well as being with it with the times and pop culture and things like that. So for me I try to find the balance in those two fans and then create elevations for each side to make a great experience.
The reason why I think entertaining fans is so important is that we need to keep them coming to watch games in person. We need to continue to provide experiences that entertain them beyond what they can see on television.
So do you think your interest in drama helped you in your career?
120%!!! That reminds me. When I was with the Raptors, I was taking drama classes at Second City because I thought I was getting creatively stagnant. I felt like I needed to get my head outside the box and the way to do that is to surround yourself with people from all different backgrounds. So that’s what I did.
Doing so helped me with:
1 Hiring A Range of Talent
When I was with the Raptors, I managed and hired for the interactive team, a group of 30 people. I looked for entertainers with big personalities, I looked for actors, and I looked for folk dancers with the skills to bring things to life, among others.
2 Pushing The Envelope
For me, it’s the creative aspect of Second City that brought me to the next level of live entertainment in the realm of sports. It helped me become way more active with my ideas and think more outside the box. In this business, you have to push the envelope or you’re just to be vanilla. Trust me, you don’t want to be vanilla in this business because you’ll never get noticed and you won’t advance.
So you want to push the envelope.
3 Team Building Techniques
Finally, it helped me build new skills for team building and techniques and also how to engage my team to think outside the box. When I was in charge of the activation teams with the Raptors, we would do team warms up every game that I learned about from my drama classes.
I’d put 30 people in a circle and tell them here’s what we’re doing with no room for judgment. I’d say, “I want you to have fun with it, you’re going to go in a circle, we’re going to tell a story one at a time.”
What would you include on the list of your biggest accomplishments or moments in your sports career?
1 Toronto Pan Am & Invictus Games
Being one of the youngest people in the office and being in charge of the brand team for the opening and closing ceremony was special. It was bringing items to life, going to schools and community groups that I loved. I was really passionate and proud of that. That’d be one of my key accomplishments because I learned so much at a young age.
With the Invictus Games, I was part of creating the first-ever mascot of the Invictus Games. I was brought in to create the mascot and the mascot program, as well as develop their outreach program. I just was so passionate about that job and the opportunity to be on the organizing committee make me super proud of everything I did there.
2 Being Coordinator Of Game Presentation With The Raptors
Wworking with the Raptors has to be an accomplishment in itself. I learned a lot in my second year, my manager quit and then I was in charge of scripting games and creating content. I was young and learning 100 miles an hour, I changed the culture of the part-time team I had there. I was part of the team that began a movement about family, having a lot of fun and expecting a high level of entertainment and performance from all.
Getting selected by the NBA for the 2019 All Star Game in LA was a special moment for me. I was selected amongst my peers as the only Canadian with my role selected to represent the game presentation aspect of the league. I had a really great time there and became a key lead on that weekend for many events.
3 Joining The Roughriders
Lastly is coming to the Roughriders. I think I’m the youngest in North American for a professional football team that does game day presentation at a Director level at the moment [laughs]. I take that very seriously. I want to not be young, I want to lead, I want to bring new ideas to the table and I want to elevate the CFL.
So, I think my key accomplishment with doing that is completely changing the game-day experience for our fans here in Saskatchewan. I’m proud to say that we’ve received a bunch of press about how the game day experience is completely elevated.
What would you say are a couple of traits that you would want people on your team to have?
What I look for is passion and attention to detail.
So what I look for is, I like folks who are very passionate.
When I interview people for roles, I ask very silly interview questions [laughs]. For example, music’s really important and I want to know their taste in music.
. For example, music’s really important and I want to know their taste in music.
Another question I like to ask prospective employees is, “if we sat down in a room full of your friends and you weren’t there and we asked them to describe you in one word, what would that be?”
I’ve received some great responses to this question from goofy to powerful to a joker.
Like I’d be like, “hey if you were animal what animal would you be and why?” And you get answers like, “Oh I’m a lion because I’m fierce.”
Yet another time, I had someone answer, “I’m a dolphin.” And I asked her why. Her answer was, “I can kill sharks but also love people.” I loved the answer!
The biggest thing for me would be I like passion, but I also like to see that they have experience.
Passion starts with volunteer experience. Volunteer experience is literally working experience. You’re getting out there, you’re understanding the flow and the high volume stress of the job that working in sports can bring and understanding how to deal with that pressure and preparing yourself to be successful.
When you’re in this field you need to be creative and you have to be fearless doing it. Being creative can be as simple as creating ideas.
2 Detail Oriented
Finally, I think being detailed is important to work on our team. Someone that focuses on the details is key because there are so many elements that go into this job. We do so many things we do in games and during events. All the elements need to be followed in order to bring events and games to life, so we need people that are able to focus on the details.
Final Thoughts From Hayley
Armed with experience as the Toronto Raptors Game Presentation prior, Russell Kovshoff has brought the same energy, passion and spirit with him to Saskatchewan. There, he’s revamped their game day presentation efforts. It’s tough to measure the impact, but as someone with significant interest in the CFL, I know that The Roughriders are gaining a strong reputation in it.
Russell Kovshoff’s story is particularly interesting. Not only did he start carving his path at 12-years-old, but he also has transitioned between sports and major Canadian cities. And he’s transitioned in one of the most difficult aspects of sport: game day presentation. Making sure that all the elements are happening to entertain fans is paramount to success. Playing the right songs at the right moments, eliciting the spark of energy to get fans pumped up, and keeping fans coming to games is a huge responsibility. Russell Kovshoff is a star at that. Many Roughrider fans may not know who Russell Kovshoff is because he works behind the scenes. But one thing is for sure. Russell is the conductor of the orchestra. But it wasn’t handed to him. Russell Kovshoff did everything and anything he could to volunteer and work in game presentation across Toronto’s professional sport teams. He did it and now look where he is. ✈️