The Canadian Football League’s struggles in Canada’s biggest city are nothing new, but the league and team continue to struggle for a solution. However, I’m willing to solve the question of how to make the CFL in Toronto work for everybody right now, and finish the Argos attendance issues for once and for all.
Solving the Argos Attendance Woes
Identifying the problem
We can start by identifying where this whole thing went wrong. The big smoke loved the Toronto Argonauts enough to hold a parade for them after losing the Grey Cup in the rain bowl of 1982, and then another when Bob O’Billovich and the Double Blue broke a thirty-one-year championship drought the very next season. The team stayed competitive throughout the eighties but by the end of 1988, brewing giant Carling O’Keefe began sudden bleeding red ink from the team’s budget. They sold the franchise to Harry Ornest to recoup the five million dollars they lost in the previous three seasons.
So what the heck happened? Was it on-field performance? Not at all – the Argos had just one losing season in the previous five. Was it the need for a dome to get inside from Lake Ontario’s elements raining over the old decrepit CNE stadium? Not a chance. The Argos attendance inside of the Skydome (now Rogers Centre, but who likes these corporate names?) sucked throughout their twenty-seven year climate-controlled stay. Lack of big name stars? Nope. Rocket Ismail, Pinball Clemons, Doug Flutie, Ricky Williams, and Ricky Ray are as big as it gets in this league, and they couldn’t fix it either.
The real answer is that the Toronto Blue Jays won their first American League East pennant in 1985 and challenged for a World Series berth that fall. They blew a three to one lead in the American League Championship Series to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals, but that’s beside the point. Toronto got a taste of something really big league other than hockey (if the Maple Leafs even count). Along with the construction of the new Skydome and all of the attention it received from all over the world, the city’s attention shifted to bigger things than the adorable CFL and its two Roughrider teams.
So how does the Canadian Football League and Argo business department fix this? Throw money at it and hope stars and a winning team solves everything? Nope. Been there, done that. Failed miserably every time.
The first step is to take notice that North American football is not a global game. Its fan base is dominated by people who grew up in North America watching the game since their youth. It relies heavily on a rural audience. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Toronto and all of Canada have become more diverse and urbanized in the thirty years since the Argos became the team the Big Smoke forgot about.
Football is also a complicated game. Start educating the public on what they’ll get for investing their time in our great game. Hire a person like Paul Beeston or Jeff Hunt to run the ship. If owner Larry Tanenbaum doesn’t want to be the guy on the street pumping up this organization, then find somebody who will. Current Argonauts President-CEO Michael Copeland is a competent executive when it comes to research and organizing the business, but he is not the guy to have on the street selling this thing to ordinary Joes.
It wasn’t hard to spot a familiar demographic at last November’s Grey Cup at BMO Field: grey-haired white men. This has to change. The Raptor game one night later was stocked aplenty with men and women, young and old, of all ethnicities. It was wonderful. This is what the Argos need.
Connect with Students and the Middle Class
A good start might be Argo university nights at local restaurants and pubs. Partner with these establishments’ managers and owners to bring people in on different nights of the week and talk about the Argos and Canadian football. Have players and coaches show up to explain the rules. Give tickets to some and encourage them to bring their friends and teach them about the game too.
A small business owner in Ottawa recently explained to me about how he never would have invested into the Ottawa Redblacks had it not been for chairman Jeff Hunt visiting him face to face and introducing him to the crowd. The Redblacks are a good template to follow for coming back from the dead. The Argos need their own Jeff Hunt on the ground, to connect with middle-class folks throughout the GTA and translate his or her love of the Toronto Argonauts in a way that would make John Candy proud. Paul Beeston’s passion for the Toronto Blue Jays re-ignited that brand. It could happen for the Toronto Argonauts too.
In a region with roughly six and a half million people, there are plenty of eyeballs who cannot afford Blue Jays, Leafs or Raptors tickets. The Argos need to hang their hat on families and the middle class. The Argos are fun, affordable—but not cheap, there’s a difference—entertainment. Emphasize that when you’re selling the team to these ordinary folks. Don’t try to be the NFL, or anything else you’re not.
League needs Toronto to Maintain TSN, Corporate Canada
The Argos are a viable brand in Toronto. The on-field product is superb and so is the in-game experience of outdoor BMO Field. And it’s vital for the CFL to make this work.
If you want to know what would happen to the league with the loss of Toronto, just ask legendary Montreal Expo owner Charles Bronfman about what happened to his business when MLB shut them out of the Toronto TV market. Corporate Canada lost interest in that whole thing real fast. The Expos didn’t make it, and the CFL cannot afford to take a hit like that.
The Argos need to survive and need to thrive. The Canadian Football League depends on it more than it’s depended on anything before.