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.
THE VIEW, WEDNESDAY NIGHT, FROM MY SEASON TICKETS AT BMO FIELD. THE SMALLEST CROWD IN FRANCHISE HISTORY WATCHED A 35–16 TORONTO VICTORY OVER THE OTTAWA REDBLACKS.
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).
FRONT PAGES OF THE TORONTO SUN (ABOVE) AND TORONTO STAR ON NOV. 28, 1982, THE MORNING OF THE GREY CUP GAME AT EXHIBITION STADIUM BETWEEN THE ARGOS AND EDMONTON ESKIMOS.
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.