What do we do with “city of champions”?

In 1979, after Pittsburgh athletes had won four Superbowls, two World Series, and a university football title, Howard Cosell called it “the city of champions.” Pittsburgh leaders, struggling with the transition from one sort of economy to another, and with a crummy reputation, took on the slogan. By 1980, books were already being published about America’s city of champions.

The original city of champions

The original city of champions

Boston and Detroit and Montreal, with their own lucky years in professional sports and their own versions of spiritual malaise, borrowed the slogan. In 1982, when major achievements in sports were fading, Cosell tried to sell the idea of eternal champion-ness back to Pittsburgh when journalists began doing the inevitable.

Define yourself a city of winners, and it’s a bit humiliating when you lose.

Edmonton, in its way, was the sporting Pittsburgh of the 1980s. The Oilers and the Eskimos were marvellously successful. On July 31, 1987, a destructive and deadly tornado blew through Edmonton. In media interviews, Mayor Laurence Decore apparently borrowed the phrase “city of champions” to refer to Edmontonians’ massive volunteer and philanthropic response to the disaster (though there is no archival evidence of this whatsoever). Either way, people were already using it in the city. Search the archives of newspapers in Canada and by December, 1987, in and out of Edmonton, the meaning of “city of champions” was well understood: hockey and football. By 1989, when things weren’t going as well on ice and turf, newspaper columnists were calling on city council to tear the sign down.

When we began searching for the single, uniting Edmonton Story, in early 2012, we were not seeking to replace city of champions. We were not looking for a traditional slogan or a tagline.

Make Something Edmonton was a three-word version of the story we found and synthesized when we learned what Edmontonians care about: what they think, what they feel about this city. As this Edmonton Journal editorial points out (note the headline), the phrase works in two ways. Edmonton is a “make something” city: it’s an unusually good place to create something from nothing, to build, and the things we’re most proud of, in this city, moved from idea to reality here. It’s also a call to action. Can you make something Edmonton? Do something for the city? Make something beautiful, something caring, something green, big, small, crazy? Even talk and think differently?

I have to report that people spoke of “city of champions” as though it had become a tired slogan that revealed its contrary: when the Oilers and Eskimos aren’t winning, what do we mean by champion? We’ve been no more successful than Pittsburgh, than Boston and Montreal and Detroit, in elevating the phrase. No matter what Mayor Decore said, the truth is most Edmontonians and people outside Edmonton see it as sports-related and, frankly, a bit sad.

Make Something Edmonton is a volunteer initiative. On Monday, the executive committee of city council will see our report. Mayor Stephen Mandel asked us to do something simple and profoundly difficult, when he asked us to find a story we can all tell about Edmonton. What makes this city different? Why do we come here and why do we stay?

Our job was not to destroy city of champions or festival city or great northern city or river city. Our job was to see if city of champions means anything, if it helps. Has it helped, since the 1980s? The evidence, hard and soft, would suggest it has not. Still, it’s a part of our history and a part of our culture.

The Edmonton question is “What are you making? How can we help?” In Edmonton, we are what we make. Our recommendations include a person or people whose sole purpose is to help entrepreneurs  of all sorts. We want someone to take people with great ideas more elegantly through bureaucracy. We want an informal audit so that public servants and all Edmontonians derive pleasure from our businesspeople, artists and social entrepreneurs who are making something. Stantec and PCL and Bioware, the Running Room, Melcor and Maclab, the Fringe Festival and the Folk Festival and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Edmonton Oilers, Klondike Days, Candy Cane Lane, iHuman, the Alberta Avenue revitalization, Homeward Trust… each started as a small idea that needed champions.

Calling this the ‘champions’ office’ came out of a meeting of our volunteer advisory committee. City manager Simon Farbrother suggested it, and everyone thought it sounded correct.

A sports reporter published a story about the Eskimos losing another game Friday night, and opened her story this way:

“Edmonton city council is set to vote next week on a motion to retire the “City of Champions” slogan in favour of a new handle, “Make Something Edmonton.”

No one is asking city council to do this. Our report is about creating a story, a public good, that all Edmontonians can use — individuals and institutions. Yes, the City of Edmonton and EEDC and the Chamber of Commerce, our post-secondary institutions and businesses small and large, artists and social entrepreneurs. We need, for the first time, consistency and discipline when we talk about what makes this place special. This may mean a new tagline, a new logo, a new sign or signs as we drive into the city.

A city brand is what you think and feel about a place. It isn’t a simple slogan, and we know this work is just beginning. Citizens built Make Something Edmonton. Our newspapers and broadcasters supported it. Soon, a more traditional campaign will begin, and we want you to be a part of it.

What are you making? How can we help?

You can access the report here.


One thought on “What do we do with “city of champions”?

  1. Before I moved to Edmonton 4 years ago, all I really knew about the city was the Oilers and the Gretzky dynasty. It was cold here and you all loved your hockey.

    Truth is, when people ask me what I thought about Edmonton before I moved here, the answer is: I didn’t. We didn’t really think about Edmonton back east in the “center of the universe”. Other than the weather and the hockey, I had no idea.

    If you ask me, the “city of champions” slogan is rightly relegated to an artifact of our past: when sports dominated Edmonton culture and our teams dominated in sports.

    Make Something Edmonton is right for these times. It captures our ingenuity and resourcefulness. It’s broad-minded and can equally be applied to our attitude to arts, culture and business – and, of course, sports.

    I love Edmonton because of the no-nonsense spirit of getting things done that exists here. I appreciate the lack of pretension among the movers and shakers in this city and I’ve come to really value the urban-rural synthesis that the city embodies.

    Let’s do everything we can to attract people to Edmonton who are makers. Let’s incubate all kinds of new ideas in business, agriculture, arts and culture. Diverse, creative “maker” culture will drive economic development in Edmonton.

    We can be the city of makers.

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