The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has a population of just over a million people. It's a wide open, blue collar kind of place. There's an old joke that the land is so flat in Saskatchewan, you can watch your dog run away for a week.
It's also home to one of the world's most passionate and dedicated sports fan bases—and not for a hockey team either. Saskatchewan is nuts for the Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
The Roughriders are perpetual underdogs In a league that is itself something of an underdog (or maybe a punch line, depending on how you look at it), and their fanbase, known collectively as Ridernation, and renowned for zealot-like fanaticism, wouldn't have it any other way.
"I think the loyalty between the fans and their team is very representative of the type of people that are in Saskatchewan," said Ben Heenan, a former Roughriders offensive lineman and now NFL hopeful. "Loyalty, dedication and hardworking are all characteristics that Saskatchewan has been built with."
Gamedays in Saskatchewan are truly a sight to behold. Fans travel for hours across the prairies—and beyond for away games—to see their team play. The stands at Mosaic Field are a sea of green and white. And some fans, in the Saskatchewan version of the Green Bay Packers cheesehead phenomenon, wear watermelons on their heads.
The dedication of Riders fans is intimately tied to the history of Saskatchewan itself. If anyone knows hard times, it's the people of the prairie province. From the devastation of the Great Depression in the 1930s to the near total collapse of its economy in the 1980s, Saskatchewan has never had it easy. Much like the province itself, the Roughriders have been subject to the boom and bust cycle that would break the will of lesser people.
The team didn't originally play football, but was first a rowing team and then a rugby team. Founded in 1910 as the Regina Rugby Club, the Riders would not adopt their iconic name until 1924 when the Ottawa Rough Riders football club changed its name to the Senators. The team gained its iconic green and white colors in 1948 when a member of the team's management picked up a set of uniforms in a sports surplus store in Chicago—the only uniforms the team could afford. The same year, the Regina Roughriders became the Saskatchewan Roughriders when the football clubs in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon both folded, leaving them as the province's sole team.
While the team was a powerhouse and perennial championship contender through the 1960s, they went a dismal 69-124 in the 13 years between their 1976 Grey Cup appearance and their 1989 Grey Cup win. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the team returned to bottom feeder status. Yet, Rider fans stuck by their team and just like the people of Saskatchewan have always done, they persevered.
Heenan, who grew up on a farm outside of Regina, became a hometown hero during his three years with the Riders. He credits his Saskatchewan upbringing with making him the player he is today. "The upbringing that my parents gave me along with the farming environment I was raised in has always been what made me who I am today, I'm forever grateful to be a Saskatchewan farm boy," he said.
For lifelong fan Mrazek, being a Riders fan is a family affair. Mrazek said that his entire family, going all the way back to his grandparents—whose farm was completely painted in the Rider's green and white colors, have been dedicated Riders fans. As a result, Mrazek had no choice but to become a lifer.
"My parents always had season tickets, so when I was 1, they started taking me to games—basically every game. I'm twenty six now, so this will be my twenty fifth year of going to games," he said.
Gameday has always been an important pastime for the Mrazek family. To this day, Jamie's family, including his parents and brother attend every game together. Well Mrazek has countless memories of attending Riders games, he said the 2013 Grey Cup game in Regina—which the Riders won—is one of his favorite memories.
"Being there with my whole family, it just summed up everything; watching the team my entire life and they weren't that good when I was younger, but then being there together and watching them win the Grey Cup," said Mrazek. "It's one the greatest memories a Rider fan could have."
Don Narcisse, who played wide receiver for the Roughriders from 1987 until 1999 and is considered to be one of the greatest players in team history, says the passion of Riders fans is what fuels the players. "These fans love their team and the players feel that. That's what it's all about. When I was playing, even if we weren't having a great season, the fans were always there," said Narcisse.
Narcisse arrived in Regina in September 1987 a few games into another losing season. Having played college football in Houston, Texas, Narcisse knew almost nothing about Saskatchewan or the Roughriders – just that the team's season was off to an abysmal start. Yet, as he stood on the sidelines of his first CFL game, he was surprised by what he saw. "I thought for sure 'they're not going to have any fans in the stands,' but then I saw it and thought 'man, this team is 1 and 8 and they're still supporting their team.' It was overwhelming."
At several points in the franchise's history, the Roughriders have nearly folded for financial reasons and would not have survived if not for the support of the fans. The team has famously organized telethons in order to raise enough money just to continue day to day operations. In 1987, the fans came to their beloved team's rescue on the heels of an eleven year playoff drought. Two years later, the team won the Grey Cup. In 1997, the team was mere days from folding and president Fred Wagman was again forced to appeal to fans for financial support in a campaign that was met with more moderate success.
Despite being on the smallest sports markets in North America (only Green Bay, Wisconsin is smaller), Saskatchewan sits near the top of the pile in terms of merchandise sales, falling only short of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians. According to the Walrus, the Roughriders are responsible for sixty seven per cent of all CFL merchandise sales. In 2011, despite winning only 5 games, merchandise sales actually increased and during the team's 2013 season, in which they won the Grey Cup, they sold $13 million in merchandise.
To an outsider, the merchandising of the Roughriders would seem insane. While the team has all the standard fare of many sports teams, they also take it a step further and have items such as official Roughriders medical scrubs. The provincial government even offers Roughriders license plates to drivers as an alternative to the regular provincial plates.
Fans of the Riders connect on a deeper level than just cheering for the same team; they also constitute a community that looks after their own. In the village of Aylesbury northeast of Regina, the local hotel bar has become a popular stopping place for fans travelling to games. The roof is covered in Roughriders flags signed by visitors and the walls are covering in pictures of game day patrons. Literally every nook and cranny of the bar is filled with Roughriders memorabilia. In July 2013, the bar's owner Lana Hodgins, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Hodgins' cancer required expensive treatments. When word got out, fans from across the province, many of whom had ever even met Hodgins, began pooling money together to pay for the treatments. Unfortunately, Hodgins passed away from the cancer in 2014, but the story demonstrates the underlying connections that make up Ridernation.
"I just want to thank Ridernation for what they did for my sister," said Lana's brother Lyle Hodgins.
Though Saskatchewan is the heart of Ridernation, fans of the team can be found anywhere in the world. No matter where the team is playing – whether it's Regina, Montreal or Toronto – it's guaranteed that the stands will be packed with loyal Riders fans.
"I've lived in Alberta and I've lived in Calgary and even at Edmonton games, there's always green in the stands," Hodgins said. "Saskatchewan is Canada-wide.