NFL in Toronto? JUST SAY NO!
Let me preface this by saying that I love the NFL and am a big Bills fan.
A deal was struck three years ago between the owner of the Buffalo Bills, Ralph Wilson, Ted Rogers and Larry Tannenbaum of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment to bring the NFL to Toronto’s Rogers Centre each year for five consecutive years. The deal stipulates that there would be eight games, five regular season and three pre-season games. With the deal set to conclude in 2012, it is worth discussing whether it has, or should have, any impact on whether Toronto deserves an NFL franchise.
I have conflicting opinions about whether I think the NFL would be successful in Toronto. Without trying to alienate my friends and family from the GTA, I must say that Toronto is not a good sports town. Let me qualify that though. There are several leagues operating at the highest level in their respective sports in North America, and in some cases, the world.
Let’s put the Maple Leafs aside, as I can’t argue their success and the health of Leafs Nation. Though I do have a few bones of contention with MLSE and their gameday value, I’ll leave that for another article. The Leafs haven’t won since Moses parted the seas, yet their fans remain optimistic (at least they do early in the season) and loyal to their team, and I tip my hat to them. However, I argue that is the only team the city properly supports.
The love affair with the Toronto Blue Jays comes and goes with how successful they are. When the team makes a real stab at the World Series, people come. But when they just don’t have the staff to put them over the hump, which evidently they have missed for the past 20 years since they last made the playoffs, the fans just will not support the team. There are two recent memories I have exemplifying the situation with the Jays. First, I recall not so long ago the Jays had “Toonie Tuesday” at the ballpark where people could by a 500 Level seat for $2. TWO DOLLARS! Still the upper deck was mostly empty. I remember being almost embarassed at the ads on the radio. The second memory is of watching a game with only 15,000 people in the stands on a night when Doc Halladay was pitching. Perhaps the greatest player in the world at the time wasn’t enough to garner attention from Toronto fans. In 2011, Toronto finished in 25th place for attendance, despite having a good, young team, the fourth largest market in the league, and the reigning Hank Aaron Award for the best hitter in the American League, Jose Bautista. I beg you to argue that Toronto is a baseball city.
When the Toronto Raptors entered the league in the mid-90′s, I was very enthusiastic. Not being a particularly big basketball fan, I grew to really enjoy their gameday experience, and following on television. In their first season at the Air Canada Centre, I bought a mini-pack with a few friends of mine and had a blast each and every game. Ahhh, the Vince Carter/Tracy McGrady years. The team was hot – I would go so far as to say they were the talk of the town at the time. However, as player after player left for greener pastures, the fans did too. Where the ACC was once sold out on a regular basis, it now is 20% empty (okay, I’m a ‘cup empty’ kinda guy) and falling. The love affair with the team was short-lived and I can’t see them getting it back, sadly. With no superstar, and a well-recognized inability to draw big names without overpaying, the city is slowly abandoning the Raptors. There is no doubt that Toronto is not a basketball city.
We also have the CFL Toronto Argonauts. Okay, yes, they are not the top-tier football league, but in a city the size of Toronto and surrounding GTA should they not draw much more than 20,000 per game? The team is a century old, much older and more historical than any NFL team, yet their following has left them. It is sad to hear their radio ads all but begging people to fill the seats. They should have joined Toronto FC (more on them in a minute) and been in on the deal for BMO Field. Too late. Despite their best efforts, they just can’t sustain a following worthy of their history. In fact, I would argue it is the worst city for CFL football given its size. They are by far the biggest city, yet they were the only team to average fewer than 20,000 per game. Even Hamilton, one-quarter the size, averaged 4,000 more fans per game.
Finally we have Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. I understand the argument that they are not “top-tier” football when compared with the big leagues around Europe, however, MLS is the best we have. It is improving, no doubt about it. Koevermans and Frings from TFC are quality players that could be playing in Europe. Koevermans signed from PSV Eindhoven, a perennial Champions League team, and played for the Dutch national team. Frings signed from Werder Bremen of the Bundesliga in Germany, and even started for football giant Bayern Munich not so long ago. He, too, represented his country internationally, playing for Germany. Despite being heralded as the most multicultural city in the world, that isn’t enough to stop the slide in attendance. The novelty is wearing off.
As you can see Toronto has plenty of options, but in each case the only time it seems interested in supporting a team is either they are wearing blue and white with a leaf on the front, or they spend an exorbitant amount of money to make a short-lasting run at a trophy. New teams seem to have some success, such as the Jays, Raptors and TFC, but Torontonians want a winner. For that reason, I think an NFL team in Toronto would be good for a while, a short while, but when the shine wears away I fear the fans will dissipate and the love affair will die.
And that is the last word…