Abandoned By MLSE

TORONTO (Oct. 8) — What is going to become of the Toronto Argonauts?

Under no reasonable circumstance can the oldest professional sports team in North America survive by drawing less than 10,000 fans per game. On Wednesday night, with the Ottawa RedBlacks in town for a critical division match, the “crowd” was announced at 6,788, the smallest in franchise history spanning four homes: Varsity Stadium; CNE/Exhibition Stadium; SkyDome/Rogers Centre and BMO Field (provincial COVID–19 restriction allows for 15,000 fully vaccinated* fans to attend football games). I was on hand with my son, Shane, in our season tickets. We had a blast. It sounded as if 30,000 people were in the house. The game rocked in the second half — the Argos coming up with one big play after another. First, a blocked punt for a touchdown. Then, a 63–yard screen pass that went the distance. There were interception returns for scores of 71 and 82 yards. The home team prevailed, 35–16, to sit alone atop the East Division with a 5–3–0 record. But, did anyone truly notice?
*Don’t blame the vax policy. Scotiabank Arena would be filled to capacity for the Leafs and Raptors.

Let’s be clear: If not for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment paying the bills, the Argos would likely fold. On Jan. 18, 2018, MLSE added the football club to its ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto F.C. Just more than two years prior, Larry Tanenbaum, a 25 percent shareholder in MLSE, had acquired the Argos through his company, Kilmer Sports. He allied with Bell Canada, which controls 37.5% of MLSE and owns TSN, the Canadian Football League’s exclusive broadcast partner. Triumph followed in 2017 when the Argonauts surprised the Calgary Stampeders to win the 105th Grey Cup, in Ottawa. An ecstatic Tanenbaum hoisted the trophy before 36,154 fans at TD Place Stadium. The game was watched by an average of 4.3 million on TV — the audience peaking at nearly six million during Toronto’s fourth–quarter comeback. Nearly a third of Canada’s population tuned into the match. When, two months later, the club fell under the full MLSE domain, its future seemed secure.

Football in Toronto, it was said, would benefit from the “promotional might” of the company… as if MLSE ever had to trumpet its flagship hockey club, which routinely draws nationwide interest. Sadly, no such effort was launched on behalf of the Argos. When the team struggled through two of the worst seasons in franchise history (4–14 records in 2018 and 2019) — and the Raptors won the 2019 National Basketball Association championship — MLSE gave up on football. As mentioned, it still pays the bills, but has no tangible affiliation with the Argos. There is no advertising; promotion of players or enthusiasm for the product. This easily filters through the community.


So, what is Toronto’s football fate? Though MLSE can afford to underwrite financial despair, it isn’t likely to roll down this path for all time. The indifference toward the Argos at the gate doesn’t reflect the attention and curiosity accorded the club on national TV. Or, that general manager Mike (Pinball) Clemons is the most–beloved and recognizable figure in franchise history. Which is truly a shame given that BMO Field is a spectacular football venue, easily the most–intimate since the Varsity Stadium era, which ended in 1959. And, even with the best seats in the house — those in the hilly upper–deck of the east stands — unavailable for purchase. The fans that do attend are as vocal and passionate as followers of the Maple Leafs and Raptors. But, there aren’t nearly enough of them.

Argonaut history seems irrelevant. A young sports fan today would likely shrug when informed that the club once drew enormous crowds to the old CNE Stadium, with its capacity of 33,135 in the years prior to renovation for baseball. He or she is probably unaware of the football Gods in that era: Leo Cahill, Joe Theismann, Bill Symons, Mel Profit, Mike Eben, Dick Thornton, Jim Corrigall, Jim Stillwagon, Marv Luster. Or that an average of 47,356 spectators flocked to Exhibition Stadium to watch a non–playoff team in 1976. That the only time fans completely filled the 54,530–seat stadium was on Nov. 20, 1983 for the Eastern Conference final against the Hamilton Tiger–Cats — also among the greatest games in franchise history: a last–minute, 43–36 triumph that propelled the home team into the Grey Cup and rocked the lakeside venue to its foundation. That the city had ground to a stop on a Saturday night the previous year; the eve of the 1982 Grey Cup at Exhibition Stadium between Toronto and Edmonton. Police closed off a large portion of Yonge Street in the downtown core as thousands of exuberant football zealots jaunted to and fro, dreaming about a conquest of the dynastic Eskimos (the Argos lost, 32–16).


The Argos held serve in the early years of the Blue Jays (1977–83), but interest began to abate after the 1983 Grey Cup win over the B.C. Lions that ended a 31–year championship drought… and coincided with the rise of the Blue Jays into contention in the American League East. There was one noticeable surge — in 1991, when the triumvirate of Bruce McNall, John Candy and Wayne Gretzky purchased the club from Harry Ornest and shocked the sports world by signing Notre Dame star Raghib (Rocket) Ismail prior to the National Football League draft. The club drew a SkyDome–best average of 36,304 that season and defeated Calgary in the Grey Cup at frosty Winnipeg Stadium. In 1996 and 1997, the two best Argonaut teams of my life — arguably in franchise history — averaged only 19,330 fans at the ‘Dome. Quarterback Doug Flutie orchestrated consecutive 15–3 seasons and Grey Cup triumphs; the ’97 club outscoring the opposition 660–327, winning its games by a median 18.5 points.

There is promise for the 2021 Argonaut club. But, nobody seems to care. Least of all, the ownership at MLSE.

How it all ends is a mystery… though I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.


26 comments on “Abandoned By MLSE

  1. It is simple. The Argos are a blight at BMO. The only reason MLSE bought the Argos is because the Fords, Norm Kelly and Mark Grimes forced their purchase as a condition of upgrades to BMO.

    Mark Grimes and Norm Kelly specifically are the reason this is occurring. The Argos needed to find a proper buyer and the City needed to work to put them in a stadium at about 10-15k That is the reality.

    MLSE didn’t want the Argos and they are treating it exactly as you would expect.

  2. Excellent perspective, Howard. MLSE has adopted the idiotic policy of selling tickets digitally with no other options. (Why if you can pay athletes millions, you can’t afford someone sell hard copy tickets is beyond me.) The app is woefully user unfriendly and I can’t believe every potential ticket buyer is all that adroit with a smartphone. When I drove in last Wednesday, the parking lot attendant was motioning me to the garage under the Enersave building, although there was ample space in the lot adjacent to BMO. (I insisted and he let me through.) But I wonder if on some level, MLSE wants the Argos to fail.

  3. The commemoration of the 91 team was a joke. They didn’t even introduce them never mind use the field. I go to a couple games a year, drive down from Barrie to do it. The only thing major league, besides the game of course are the prices. The fireworks should be set off in MLSE offices.

  4. Howard, you are absolutely correct – MLSE has abandoned the Argos, if it ever really embraced the club since acquiring it. The lack of cross-marketing, or even some active specific Argo marketing, is indicative of the low regard the MLSE board has for this franchise. The Argo schedule is pretty much an afterthought – weeknight games in late Fall, or for that matter, 4 pm starts on weekends, are horrible times to build a younger fan base. What ever happened to 1 pm matinees on a sunny weekend? And to make matters worse, MLSE has scheduled 2 of its franchises up against each other on October 30 – both Argos AND the Marlies start at 4 pm…in nearly adjoining facilities. Who is responsible for this poor planning? MLSE has certainly dropped the ball…

    ps Nice to hear you have season’s tickets with your young son. We need about 10,000 more young families to join in, if the schedulers can just figure this out.

  5. It’s the vaccine policy. Many fans don’t agree with it. Before they put that in place Argos drew in big crowds. Trust me I work there and saw it first hand.

  6. Through the Argo ages. The Argos have been elevated by the media and fan support with big American player signings. Tobin Rote, Cookie Gilchrist, Joe Theismann, Anthony Davis, Terry Metcalfe, Rocket Ismail, Doug Flutie, Ricky Williams. Some worked. Some did not. MLSE has the dough, but how do they sign them up now. NFL players make huge amounts and now NCAA players can make $ now while attending college. Which leaves the excommunicated NFL players. Josh Gordon got re-instated again. Who would be next Deshaun Watson. No Leo Cahill or Bruce McNall exists at MLSE to add that creative touch.

  7. To be fair, the writer is on the West side of the building. That is where they put the majority of the fans. Yes it was a lower attendance that usual, but the photo taken is disingenuous and used to push a narrative. Hence why the South end wasn’t shown in the photo either.

    1. Have you always been an idiot? I’m in my season tickets. That’s the view. Yes, they’re on the west side of the stadium. Attendance was fewer than 7,000. So, even a lamebrain can deduce from this photo that most fans are on my side. Don’t draw reasonable people into your sorry scope.

  8. This is so sad. I am one of a few people people that travel from Peterborough Ontario to watch the Argos at least once a season, but this season its even tougher with the horrible scheduling of all these weekday home games. I feel the end is near and that my grandkids will not get to see a Toronto Argonauts game unfortunately.

    1. You should be able to easily attend the game on Oct.30th (Saturday at 4PM). My nephew who lives in Peterborough will be attending his first ever game along with both his uncles, Grandfather and at least one of his cousins.

  9. MLSE pushed for a CFL/XFL collaboration. I suspect they believe that football fans would rather see a Toronto v NY, or LA, or Houston game as opposed to a Toronto v Saskatchewan, or Hamilton, or Ottawa matchup. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see the franchise eventually leave the CFL behind but that would be a shame considering it’s storied past. BMO Field will be expanding soon and 10K fans will feel lost within a 40,000 seat stadium. I used to be a season ticket holder but I find getting to games at BMO Field is too much hassle. I would have liked the stadium proposal involving York University that the Sokolowski/Cynamon ownership group was considering.

    1. The NFL won’t be coming here. Huge franchise fee and a 80,000 seat stadium needed to get a franchise. The Bills were here and couldn’t wait to get out of the deal. It’ll never happen.

      1. Jacksonville is one-sixth the size of Toronto and were able to land a franchise. Bills didn’t work in T.O. because they weren’t really our team.

  10. Is MLSE abandoning TFC too? They drew 5,110 a few weeks ago and have been drawing sub 10K crowds all season. Ever thought being in a middle of a pandemic and with vaxxed to attend restrictions have something to do with this too? There’s a reason why the CFL doesn’t play on Wednesdays.

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