Monday, October 17, 2016


It is, arguably, the oldest continuous professional sports franchise in North America. It has won more championships than most teams, including those in other sports. It has given rise to legends and stories going back generations. It has brought some of the greatest athletes to Canada. It was a team linked with the idea of big city, big time, big aspirations, big league. And it has become something of an orphan to the very city that gave birth to it. It is the Toronto Argonauts.

A few readers may, at this point, be rolling their eyes and possibly thinking "oh no, not another nostalgia piece from an old guy. What's next? An elegy to the passing of boxing? A lament for the irrelevance of the CNE? A remembrance for horse races past?" Well, actually, partly.

After all, the Argonauts, along with the Maple Leafs, were the sports face of the city of Toronto and most of southern Ontario for more than one hundred years. Those of my age or older, will remember the arrival of great players like Joe Kroll, one of the great early quarterbacks of the early years of football, and his indelible mark left for all time on this great game. We can also remember well the large crowds, and the legendary achievements in some of the worst conditions that weather could throw at the players and fans. We can remember games at Varsity Stadium  and Exhibition Stadium when crowds of more than 40,000 were the norm rather than the exception. And we remember people talking about the Argonauts, and imitating their players when we played pick up games, and when the sports media was full of the signings of great players, the colourful lines of colourful coaches, and the crazy promotions of crazy owners. In short, we remember when the Argonauts mattered.

So much for nostalgia. The fact is, the Argonauts no longer matter. Crowds have diminished, despite some good teams over the last twenty years and a couple of championships. The media has, for the most part, ignored the football team to concentrate on the Leafs ( as expected, Toronto is, first and foremost, a hockey town ), the Blue Jays ( suddenly a contender with the considerable media clout of Rogers backing them ), and johnny-come-latelies like the Raptors ( hip, urban and ethnic ) and the soccer team I shall not name ( also ethnic ). The Argonauts get the scraps, along with the Marlies and college and minor sports.

Recently, a blog suggested that it was time to move the Argonauts out of Toronto and re-locate them to Quebec City or the Maritimes. I read that blog and, for the first time ever as a football fan, had to concede that the blog had valid arguments. In short, the blog stated that even a move to a "new" and more fan-friendly stadium (BMO Field ) couldn't help the team. Essentially, the blog said that the Argonauts had, after more than 140 years, worn out their welcome and should move.

However, as Hamlet said .... "that would be scanned." A move out of Toronto would surely kill the CFL as a national institution. Like it or not, Toronto is the media capital of English Canada and the mere presence of the Argonauts in the CFL guarantees that the media will pay some attention to it, although largely for the consumption of other markets in the country. A move would also pave the way for the huge National Football League to finally make it's move into the market. The CFL cannot have the NFL on its home turf. So, the Argonauts must stay, but, more importantly, must become relevant again. But how ?

If one thinks back into the recent past, the last time the Argonauts were seen as exciting and big-league was the so-called "Rocket Ismail" era. Ismail was a highly-touted player from Notre Dame in the US. He was much sought-after among NFL teams, and his signing by the Argonauts was seen as a huge coup that elevated the team, the city and the league on a par with the NFL. The sports media paid attention, and the fans cared. The stadium attracted large crowds ( only one sell-out, it must be noted ) and the rest of the country began to hate Toronto again. The Grey Cup was won by the Argonauts, a talented team quarterbacked by Matt Dunnigan and anchored by Ismail. It was reminiscent of earlier teams featuring such talents as Joe Theismann, Leon McQuay, Eric Allen, Terry Metcalf, and others. These were times when the Argonauts could match the appeal and significance of all the other teams, including the Blue Jays.

In recent years, the Argonauts and the rest of the CFL have operated on a strict and rigid business plan implemented by the league. The league went through some very tough times over the last two decades: franchises disappearing, an ill-advised expansion into the US, and external economic downturns that negatively impacted a small league driven largely by gate receipts. The plan has ensured that the league has survived and, indeed, has thrived in the west, and in Montreal and Ottawa. But the plan kept the league and the game small and quiet in the big market of Toronto. The result was the impression that the league was minor and on a par for a town like Regina, not Toronto. Thus, the situation that has been covered in this blog.

The only way for the CFL generally and the Argonauts specifically to become relevant again is to scrap the business plan in Toronto. In other words, no salary cap for the Argonauts, and let them raid to their hearts' content upon the NCAA and NFL to attract some "big name" players. And to let the Argonauts develop a marketing scheme to promote the home-grown Canadian players that provide the backbone of the CFL. The Argonauts must continue to run promotions and get out into the community as they do now. (They are generally recognized as being the Toronto team that does more charity and outreach work than the other teams.) And they must advertise more than any other Toronto team. The league must work with the Argonauts to do this: there must be a huge advertising budget for the Argonauts in the GTA market. And the CFL schedule-maker must do a better job to ensure that the Argonauts do not go up against the Blue Jays ( especially when the Jays are at home ) and avoid home games on week nights, especially in the summer. Football in Toronto must be on either Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, no exception. No more crazy 4 or 5 pm start times: football must begin either at 1 pm or in the 7 to 7:30 pm time slot. And back load home games into the late summer and autumn weeks: Torontonians are at the cottage or attending festivals in the summer.

Toronto is not like the rest of Canada. It is bigger, more diverse, richer, and, yes, more arrogant. One could get into an endless argument as to whether all this is a good thing or a bad thing. The fact is, it is a TRUE thing. So, in order for one of the oldest and most gloried institutions in this city to flourish, the rule book must be thrown out. It might not work: but what does the CFL or the Argonauts themselves have to lose? Clearly, the current model is not working. The time has come to bring this fabled team back to life.

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