TORONTO (Sep. 22) — Not much about the deterioration of the Toronto Argonauts surprises me anymore, but I admit to gasping at the announced attendance–figure for Friday night’s home game against the Grey Cup–champion Calgary Stampeders. Apparently, 9,819 souls made their way to BMO Field. Again, that’s what the Argos announced. According to a person on hand, with whom I communicated on Saturday, the club must have been counting arms and legs. “I’d be surprised if 3,000 people were in the stadium,” he insisted.
Announced attendance or actual attendance. Does it really matter anymore?
The slow, agonizing death of our city’s oldest professional sports team has become burlesque; an absurdity. If it weren’t so depressing, we would snicker at the devolution of ownership, management and facility — not long ago considered the lifeblood of a football renaissance in Toronto. You remember: less than a month after a startling Grey Cup victory in November 2017, the Argonauts were purchased by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — the cash cow that filled Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) by merely unlocking the front doors. The Toronto Maple Leafs could lose all 82 regular–season games and suffer nary a pinch of economic distress. This was seen, by many, as an appendage of the MLSE publicity “machine” rather than the continuous, fatal attraction of local hockey zealots. If anyone, therefore, could “sell” Canadian football to an apathetic public, it had to be the Bay Street behemoth. Particularly in a renovated playpen at the Canadian National Exhibition, whose southern tier intersected with the site of the original CNE (later Exhibition) Stadium — home of the Argonauts from 1959 to 1988; the Blue Jays from 1977–89, and finally demolished in December 1998. Vast areas of parking. Tail–gating. Free admission to the annual CNE fair with a football ticket. The FOOD Building in which to engorge prior to the game. It would re–kindle misty memories of a time when the Argonauts and Maple Leafs were perched on an adjoining pedestal.
AERIAL VIEW OF THE ORIGINAL CNE STADIUM — ITS 33,135 SEATS FILLED TO CAPACITY FOR A GAME BETWEEN THE TORONTO ARGONAUTS AND HAMILTON TIGER–CATS ON SEP. 10, 1972. AT BOTTOM OF PHOTO (IN MIDDLE) IS THE OLD HOCKEY HALL OF FAME. AT BOTTOM–RIGHT IS THE MASSIVE CNE FOOD BUILDING. ONTARIO PLACE, OPENED A YEAR EARLIER, IS ON LAKE ONTARIO AT TOP OF IMAGE.
Yet, here we are, not three years later, and… crickets.
The announcement of 9,819 for a football game downtown represented the smallest gathering in my 50 years of interest in the Argos. The Leafs would get 9,819 to watch William Nylander blow–dry his hair. Fifty years is a long time. It was precisely one–half–century ago Friday night that I attended my first CFL game: Ottawa at Toronto on Sep. 20, 1969. Russ Jackson, as always back then, beat the Argos, 34–27, with a late touchdown drive. My dad spent the better part of a week landing $2.50 tickets in the 50th row of Sec. ‘A’ — (RED dot on 1969 seat–map, bottom–left) — beyond the west end zone and as far from the playing field as fans could sit in the original stadium. In 1971, Dad purchased season tickets in the walking–aisle of Sec. 12 in the uncovered south stand (YELLOW dot, below), 35 rows up and directly on the west goal–line. You couldn’t do any better for Argonaut games in that era, with Leo Cahill at the helm and all 33,135 seats occupied.
Sep. 20, in fact, rings quite a football bell. On that date in 1972, the capacity audience at CNE Stadium sang “Goodbye Leo” to the coach that had guided the Argonauts to an Eastern final win over Hamilton and berth in the 1971 Grey Cup. Exactly 10 months later — while losing 23–9 to the lowly B.C. Lions and falling to 1–7 on the season — the fans derisively serenaded Cahill to the tune of “Goodnight Ladies”. Don Matthews coached the team at SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) on Sep. 20, 1990 when the Argos obliterated Calgary, 70–18, for the most points in franchise history. Early that afternoon, in neighboring Mississauga, Barbara Tavares had given birth to a boy named John who would one day score 47 goals for the Leafs. But, I digress.
What happened to the promise and excitement of the day (Dec. 13, 2017) MLSE took control of the Argonauts? Said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie on that cheery afternoon: “Clearly, MLSE has built a winning culture with spectacular capabilities. And the fact the Argos can be part of that culture, bring their own winning culture to the table and tap into corporate capabilities on the business side is good news for the league and good news for Toronto. I’m a commissioner with a big smile today.” Added MLSE CEO Michael Friisdahl: “We look forward to building on the Argos’ strong momentum as we welcome the team to the leading provider of sports and entertainment experiences in Canada.” A sub–title in the Financial Post proclaimed: “Argos will get support from the heft of MLSE’s promotional, ticketing and financial operations”.
So, again… what happened? Why, apart from paying the salaries of players, coaches and front–office personnel, has MLSE all–but disappeared with respect to the football team? Why does a general manager (Jim Popp) with a 6–24 record in 30 games since the 2017 Grey Cup still have a job? On what assumption did ownership offer the presidency to a man (Bill Manning) with strictly a soccer background (running Toronto FC) and no previous Canadian football experience? How is it the Argonauts — devoid of a front–line quarterback — gave away three–such commodities (Zach Collaros, Trevor Harris, Cody Fajardo) to other teams in the CFL? And why, after selling BMO Field as a prime football facility, did MLSE close off, by far, the best seats in the stadium — those in the upper–deck of the east stands? If asked to screw up an operation from top to bottom, it’s unlikely that Larry Tanenbaum and MLSE could have done a more–thorough job.
MLSE MADE A POOR DECISION BY CLOSING OFF — FOR SALE AT ARGONAUT GAMES — THE BEST SEATS AT BMO FIELD: THOSE IN THE UPPER–DECK OF THE EAST STANDS (ABOVE).
These are not stupid people. Or without passion for sport.
Why, then, have the Argos — for all appearances and after the big promises of December 2017 — been abandoned by ownership? If MLSE is indifferent toward one of its properties, from where can it expect the public to derive enthusiasm? This season and last have featured two of the most–inept, boring and undisciplined teams in the 146–year history of the Argonaut franchise. After a 4–14 debacle last year, the club jettisoned coach Marc Trestman and replaced him with Corey Chamblin, loser of his final 10 games with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2014 and 2015. Chamblin is 2–20 in his past 22 CFL encounters. Popp, three times a Grey Cup general manager, is 6–24 since 2017, yet has the audacity to prance up and down the sidelines rather than occupying an executive suite. There are more ushers at Toronto FC home matches than fans at Argo games. And, the death–spiral continues with no visible unease from the parent company.
It’s almost as if MLSE has chosen to sabotage whatever smidgen of football ardor remains in this city.
Maybe the company is still too intoxicated by the Raptors’ NBA title to adequately administer its CFL team. Or, has concluded, as in the prevailing sentiment across town, that even a Grey Cup contender can no–longer gain a foothold in the local sports market. If it’s the latter, MLSE was blowing smoke when it purchased the team, for the Argos were in dire straits, off the field, even then. If the company considers the Argos a lost cause — or no–longer fashionable enough for its corporate image — it should try and sell the club so someone that still cares… for a token dollar, if need be. To hang onto the historic franchise and drive it into the ground as a worthless entity, even by appearance, is unconscionable.