CFL Takes Over Toronto Argonauts

FOR A HALF-DOZEN seasons, I've sat with friends a few rows up from a couple of TORONTO ARGONAUT season-ticket-holders who often come to SkyDome carrying briefcases.

CFL Takes Over Toronto Argonauts

FOR A HALF-DOZEN seasons, I've sat with friends a few rows up from a couple of TORONTO ARGONAUT season-ticket-holders who often come to SkyDome carrying briefcases. During games they read through files and trade magazines, looking up only when the crowd noise indicates something dramatic is happening. It's curious behaviour even in buttoned-down, thank-God-it's-Monday Toronto. And at places like Taylor Field in Regina or Molson Stadium in Montreal, where attendance is a full-contact sport, they'd probably be thrown out for not being loud enough.

I mention this because toward the end of last season, after struggling through a rash of injuries and organizational disarray, the Argos ran off a string of four straight victories that qualified the underdogs for a berth in the eastern conference final against Montreal. The last two of those wins were thrilling, come-from-behind efforts that had the 23,000 or so fans at SkyDome dancing and screaming and sounding like 50,000. Even the couple in front of us were up, shouting and high-fiving their neighbours. It was electric, and there was a CFL buzz in the city for the first time in ages.

These days, though, the famed Argo bounce goes the wrong way. The team bolstered its coaching staff and added a hall-of-fame quarterback in the off-season, but there were only 15,126 fans at the home-opener at the cavernous SkyDome. Attendance actually went down for the next two home games, even though the current Argos are perhaps the best in many years. And the CFL's so affordable: the two season tickets I share with my son cost less than $15 each per game. Or, put another way, less for an entire season of Argos than for a single platinum seat at a single Leafs hockey game at the always-sold-out Air Canada Centre.

Yet when the league finally seized control of the sinking Boatmen last week, the wrong guy got fingered as the culprit. Sherwood Schwarz, a New Yorker who made a fortune selling life insurance, lost $15 million or so in three fiscally disastrous seasons as the Argos' owner. Schwarz made a slew of errors: he knew nothing about the CFL when he bought the team, and had a knack for taking terrible advice on everything from head coaches to marketing campaigns. Tired of the losses, he ceased paying bills and handed over the franchise - right down to its logo - to the league's care, uncontested.

But Torontonians are really the ones to blame, and there's a sensible argument that says the league should let the team die since not enough people go to games. It might even help. Montreal lost its team and the ALOUETTES came back stronger than ever. Happened in Ottawa, too. There's no guarantee, though, that if the Argos died, they'd ever be resuscitated. They compete for disposable income against, among others, three major-league and several minor-league sports franchises; a rotation of big-ticket, Broadway-bound theatre productions; a steady stream of international musical acts; and, in July and August, the lure of cottage country. The fear is that, once gone, the CFL's oldest franchise might soon be forgotten.

It's more than just tradition that makes commissioner Tom Wright fight to keep the Argos afloat while looking for a new owner. Toronto, he insists, is no more important than the other eight cities where the CFL plays, but he will admit it's different. It's where most ad agencies are located, where the league's own head office is, where its broadcast partners, CBC and TSN, and 80 per cent of its national sponsors are headquartered. And it's where the country's largest pool of fans live - they might not get off their butts and go to games, but they watch on TV, appealing to advertisers and contributing to the dramatic TV ratings increases over the last few years. "The league needs the Argos," says marketing executive Mike Gouinlock, president of GEM Canada. "You can't call it the 'Canadian' Football League and not have a team in Toronto."

A Toronto-less league wouldn't necessarily mean falling TV ratings, say Phil King, senior vice-president at TSN, and Tony Agostini, senior director of CBC Sports. The Argos don't pull more viewers than, say, Edmonton. But losing Toronto doesn't help, either. "Simply put," Agostini says, "we're interested in keeping the league whole." So the other eight owners, to the dismay of their fans, will pick up the tab for the salary-cap-stretched Boatmen in hopes that Wright, a canny sports executive facing his first stern test as commish, can find solid backing for the old Argos. They may not like it, but the game's worth saving, even in Toronto.

Maclean's August 11, 2003