David Sidoo chats with members of the UBC Thunderbirds on the field that bears his name
Philanthropist David Sidoo quarterbacked the UBC football team’s transformation from perennial loser to Vanier Cup champion. But can the squad keep winning—and build a legion of loyal fans?
Courtesy David Sidoo
“How close was it?” I ask.
“Pretty close,” he says.
“They were really going to axe the football team?”
David Sidoo shrugs. He’s sporting a half-grin, the mischievous kind that kids flash before they reveal a secret. “It was costing UBC about a million a year to operate the team,” says the businessman, philanthropist and former professional football player. “And all the team did was lose.”
That last detail grated on Sidoo. Despite playing in Canada’s third-largest city, for a university with some 60,000 students, the Thunderbirds football team had managed only one winning season from 2000 to 2014, falling regularly to schools with a fraction of the number of students and far less money.
Sidoo doesn’t like losing. Full-throttle competitiveness marked his own time on the gridiron at UBC, his five seasons in the Canadian Football League and his remarkable rise in business. That restless drive keeps him going today. As his colleague Peter Espig, a Vancouver mining executive, notes, “I don’t think he sleeps very much.”
Tonight the man who doesn’t sleep much looks rested and in good spirits. We’re standing on a balcony high above the field named after him at Thunderbird Stadium, watching the T-Birds battle the University of Alberta Golden Bears in UBC’s 2016 home opener. It’s a balmy September evening, and above the trees to the west the sun is burning a crimson hole in the sky.
At 57, Sidoo looks younger than his years, with curly black hair, olive skin and penetrating dark brown eyes. He’s in good shape, not much heavier than in 1982, when the six-foot-one defensive back led UBC to its first national title, captaining a squad that many regard as the best Canadian collegiate football team of all time. In person, he conveys confidence and an easy informality. If there’s artifice to him, it’s not apparent.
We’ve just left a reception hosted by the 13th Man Foundation, a group composed mostly of former UBC football-players-turned-businessmen that came together in 2014 with the goal of not only saving the varsity football team but forging a championship-calibre program.
If the university administrators were serious about deep-sixing the club, their attitude changed when foundation head Sidoo outlined an ambitious plan to fund UBC football through the private sector by reaching out to powerful alumni and business leaders. Given the green light by Louise Cowin, vice-president of students, he then swiftly set in motion a strategy that landed a legendary collegiate coach and several outstanding young players.
Sidoo throwing the ball at UBC
UBC’s rejuvenated squad clicked right out of the gate, thumping defending champ Université Laval 41-16 in an August 2015 preseason game in Quebec City. The T-Birds finished the regular season with a 6-2 record and notched four straight playoff wins, claiming the Vanier Cup by defeating the Montreal Carabins on a last-second field goal.
The Cup, a big, unwieldy trophy topped with a silver chalice, was the guest of honour at tonight’s reception. Everyone loves a winner, and the heavy hitters were out in full force, among them Santa Ono, UBC’s new sports-loving president, and several directors of the 13th Man Foundation: Jerry Dobrovolny, director of transportation for the City of Vancouver; Kevin Konar, a vice-president at RBC Dominion Securities Inc.; and David Negrin, president of Aquilini Development and Construction Ltd.
But when the speeches began, Sidoo was the one repeatedly cited as the spark behind the team’s magical turnaround—an inspirational figure, a tireless worker, a guy who won’t take no for an answer. Gilles Lepine, UBC’s new athletic director, was effusive in his praise. “David Sidoo, you’re a leader,” he said. “You’re a great man. You’re a king.”
Lepine also made a bold promise: “I can tell you that we’re going to win a lot of championships. We don’t have fingers for all the rings we’re going to win.”
Sidoo admits that 2015 was a Cinderella season. “Everything broke our way,” he says above the roar of tonight’s 7,000-strong crowd, a new record for a UBC football game. “It’s not something we were expecting.”
Clearly, hopes have been raised sky-high, but Sidoo believes the team will sustain its momentum because he’s following the same three-pronged strategy he used to assemble companies from scratch. “I am a builder,” he asserts as the brass band kicks into gear down below. “I come up with a plan and a goal. I hire talent and assemble a team, and I raise capital.”
Playing for the BC Lions
Sidoo also works his tail off, just like he did when he left pro football for the brokerage business. In his final CFL season in 1988, with the BC Lions, he spent his mornings at a downtown Vancouver firm working the phones, then raced to football practice. After dinner he’d go back to making cold calls, building his client base. “I did that for three months,” remembers Sidoo, the first Indo-Canadian to play in the league. “It was crazy.”
Sidoo became a top earner and made partner at Yorkton Securities, but after a decade he moved into investment banking, founding several companies in the resource sector. Not all succeeded, but Sidoo struck it rich with American Oil & Gas Inc. In 2010, U.S. petroleum player Hess Corp. bought the business for US$630 million in an all-stock deal.
Courtesy David Sidoo
Football is just one of many passions that Sidoo has thrown his time and money behind. One venture that didn’t pan out was his 2006 decision to buy a stake in Lumière, then one of Vancouver’s top-ranked restaurants. Lumière’s high-profile chef, Rob Feenie, had reached out to Sidoo because he was $350,000 in the red. But the relationship soured as Feenie publicly accused Sidoo and his wife, Manjy, of seizing control of the kitchen to force him out. Sidoo maintained that they didn’t have anything to do with the food. After Feenie departed, Sidoo imported an even more illustrious chef, Daniel Boulud, from New York. But Lumière had already lost some of its well-heeled clientele and never regained its original cachet. The restaurant closed in 2011.
More recently, Sidoo has become known for his philanthropy. In 2006, he and Manjy launched Sidoo Family Giving, a charity whose causes include supportive housing for the homeless, school breakfast and arts programs, children’s football camps and research into childhood cancers. Their sons, Dylan and Jordan, are involved too. The Sidoo Family Athletics Endowment, which dispenses aid to student athletes, is the largest of its kind at UBC, where Sidoo serves on the board of governors.
Giving children a decent breakfast before school strikes a personal chord for Sidoo. His father, an immigrant millworker from the Punjab, raised five kids on a salary of $12,000. “I know that growling feeling in your stomach,” he says. “I grew up poor in New Westminster, and there were many days when I only had one meal.”
The experience marked him. “Why do I continue working as hard as I do?” Sidoo asks. “Because I don’t want to end up back in that little house in New Westminster.”
In recognition of his charitable work, Sidoo received the Order of British Columbia this past July and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Non-Resident Indian Award in 2012.
“I’ve known David for more than 20 years. He’s a selfless guy,” says former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal. “I remember he called me one time when I was on the bench. He’d seen a story in the paper about a woman who had been the victim of brutal spousal violence, and he said, ‘I really want to help her. How can I help her?’”
Philanthropy opens doors and connects you with influential people, and Sidoo knows a lot of celebrities. In 2008, when former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell visited Vancouver to meet local power brokers, Sidoo helped to organize the dinner. In 2015, he joined forces with the Kevin Spacey Foundation to fund its Artists of Choice Awards, which support and recognize emerging artists in film, dance and theatre.
In philanthropy or business, there are no half measures with Sidoo. He certainly didn’t hold back when it came to rescuing the UBC football team.
Courtesy David SidooSome may find the professionalization of university sport distasteful, but Sidoo insists that it’s the only way to compete with the best teams in eastern Canada, which no longer depend solely on student fees for their funding. Laval, in Quebec City, is the gold standard. Fuelled by a $2-million annual budget, most of it gleaned from corporate sponsorships, the university rocketed from not even fielding a football team until 1996 to winning the national title just three years later.
The Rouge et Or has since claimed eight more Vanier Cups and built a fanatical following, routinely drawing crowds of 12,000, including 8,000 season-ticket holders. All of Laval’s games, even pre-season, are broadcast on Radio-Canada and Réseau des sports, the French language national sports network.
Change is often slow at protocol-minded academic institutions, but as of December the well-connected 13th Man Foundation had already raised $2.4 million for UBC. That total includes donations from individuals and the foundation’s sponsors—Advantage Lithium Corp., AllWest Insurance, Mogo Finance Technology Inc., Thunderbird Films Inc., Wales McLelland Construction and others. Donors initially committed $600,000 annually over five years; Sidoo himself pledged $1 million—$200,000 a year. “After we won the national championship, the commitment increased to $700,000 for a total of $3.5 million, and we continue to add donors big and small,” he says.
Courtesy David SidooThe foundation contributed $1.05 milllion to an academic learning centre for the players, installed a video scoreboard at Thunderbird Stadium and renovated the locker rooms, coaches’ offices and athletes’ facilities. It also spearheaded a revamped game presentation that saw the addition of food trucks, giveaways, contests and souvenir stalls outside the main gates.
Sidoo improved the on-field product by enticing Blake Nill, one of the top collegiate coaches in Canadian football history, to join UBC in 2015 from the University of Calgary, where he had built a Prairie juggernaut. Nill brought along key members of his staff, including Steve Buratto, who steered the BC Lions to a Grey Cup win in 2000. He also recruited a few impact players, most notably Michael O’Connor, a rifle-armed freshman quarterback who transferred from U.S. powerhouse Penn State.
A self-described “hard-ass,” the granite-jawed Nill worked to stamp out complacency and instil a winning attitude. “I have more will than the lot of you combined,” the six-foot-six, 270-pound coach told the players at one of his first practices.
Sidoo is confident that Nill’s ability to gather the right talent will pay huge dividends in the next few years: “It’s Blake’s recruiting that sets him apart,” he says.
“Recruiting is everything in this game,” Nill observes. “Basically, it’s sales, and it’s very competitive.” Today more than ever, the process starts with coaches not only scouting but getting to know prospects as early as Grade 10.
At the end of its Cinderella 2015 season, UBC continued its Laval-inspired makeover by hiring Lepine, the Quebec university’s longtime director of athletic excellence, who has impeccable credentials. Sidoo reportedly began wooing the gregarious 61-year-old only hours after the T-Birds won the championship.
Lepine believes artful presentation is the secret to drawing crowds. “I look at sport as a thing to sell, a product. It’s theatre,” he says. “And when you create good theatre, people come.”
At Down Set Hut kids’ football camp
Rain is pelting the picture window of David Sidoo’s home office. On this November morning, low-hanging clouds obscure his sprawling mansion’s spectacular view of the North Shore mountains. Some of the gloom seems to have found its way inside. Sidoo’s normal upbeat demeanour has been taken down a notch or two by a nasty stomach flu he picked up in Argentina.
He went to South America to close a deal on a property that he believes may hold major reserves of lithium. Appointed CEO of Vancouver-based Advantage Lithium just two months ago, he’s already formed a team and raised $9 million in funding. Sidoo reckons that the mineral, a key component in electric car batteries and computers, will soon become a hot commodity.
The UBC Thunderbirds’ 2016 season was less successful. The team finished fourth in its conference with a disappointing 3-5 record. Injuries to key players were a big factor, as was graduation: the squad lost six elite starters from its defence and kicker Quinn Van Gylswyk, all but one of whom went to the CFL. Still, UBC nearly pulled off another storybook ending. After squeaking into the playoffs, the T-Birds upset the first-place Regina Rams before being edged 46-43 by Calgary in the Canada West finals.
Sidoo downplays the team’s uneven performance. “You need so many breaks,” he says. “And when you’re number one, everyone prepares harder for you and has their best effort against you every game,” he adds, noting that many Canadian Interuniversity Sport football teams now measure themselves against UBC.
“But the kids and coaches will recommit themselves, and we’ll be at the top again,” Sidoo vows. “Our alumni are as committed as ever. You don’t build a culture overnight. This was a good and humbling experience for all.”
A tougher challenge than winning may be getting students to care. After the T-Birds attracted record-setting crowds for their first two games of 2016, turnout slipped back down to the familiar 1,000 mark. Poor attendance dogs all of the university’s two dozen varsity teams. Reasons cited include Vancouver’s inclement weather, UBC’s high number of international students and the school’s intense academic demands. Sidoo adds another to the mix: “In a big city like Vancouver, there’s intense competition for sports. The Canucks really take up a lot of the oxygen.”
Surprisingly, many UBC students don’t even know that their university has a football team. To raise awareness, the 13th Man Foundation and the athletic department launched a new supporters’ club called the Birdcage, led by engagement strategist Aaron Bailey. A $30 membership fee buys a season’s pass to all varsity games, discounts at bars and restaurants, and a hoodie emblazoned with the Birdcage logo. Memberships haven’t been flying off the shelves, though: as of November, only 550 students had signed up.
Sidoo says he’s cooking up some new ideas to generate fan excitement: “Basically, we are trying to create a festival-like atmosphere at our games.”
What does he get in return for his investment? “I’ve always been an ultra-competitive guy, and I get a real kick out of seeing the team compete like we did back in the 1980s,” Sidoo says, recalling one vivid memory from the 2015 Vanier Cup game in Quebec City. “I was standing at the side of the field just before the kickoff when two of our players came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Sidoo, we just wanted to let you know that we’ll remember this moment for the rest of our lives.’ I was touched that they would stop to say that just before the big game. It really got to me. I actually started to tear up on the sidelines.”