Byron Parker cinched the Toronto Argonauts 24-20 win over the B.C. Lions with a late interception that he returned for a 41-yard touchdown. The victory gives the Boatmen a 3-1 record, tying them with the Montreal Alouettes at the top of the Canadian Football League’s Eastern Division.
This is big news for Toronto’s beleaguered franchise. They’ve been struggling financially since 2003 with past owners barely avoiding bankruptcy and needing bailouts to keep the club afloat. This tumult led to David Braley – also the owner of the Lions – buying the team before the start of the 2010 season.
Getting some wins and rejuvenating the Argonauts’ tattered image is crucial to reviving the most successful team in CFL history.
Here’s the thing – most people in Toronto don’t care.
Once upon a time this city was painted Double Blue every summer, but the Argonauts have long since ceded their hold on the sporting public to upstarts like the Toronto Blue Jays and, more recently, Toronto FC.
Attendance continues to suffer at the Boatmen’s home, the Rogers Centre, while apathy for Canadian football grows unabated in the nation’s largest city. As the Vancouver Sun’s Mike Beamish pointed out on Sunday, Toronto’s two home games this season – both wins – are the lowest announced home attendance figures for the Argos since 2003, when the team was on the verge of folding.
How did a once proud franchise end up like this?
There are many contributing factors including unstable ownership, an increasingly crowded market that has seven other professional sports teams and the cavernous Rogers Centre.
The biggest problem though, has been that the Boatmen have ignored the power of television.
It has been a long-standing Argonauts policy to black out home games on television in an attempt to bolster attendance numbers. This tactic may have worked for the Boatmen in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but it’s cost them since then.
Television has only grown in stature, becoming a staple in practically every household, while ticket prices have risen, making it difficult for the average fan to go to several home games in a season. Because Torontonians are unable to watch the Argonauts on TV, they don't know who is on the team or what to expect from a CFL game. There's no draw for the casual fan.
As a result, an entire generation of Torontonians have grown up unfamiliar with the Canadian Football League. It’s an important cohort too. The so-called Echo generation, the children of the Baby Boomers, are the second largest generation in Canadian history.
Instead of being raised on Argonaut heroes of the 1980s and 1990s, most Torontonians in their 20s and 30s have fond memories of Blue Jays like Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter.
Sure, there were some highlights for the Boatmen like when they were purchased by John Candy and Wayne Gretzky. The Doug Flutie years also saw a brief bump in interest. But in both cases the fame was fleeting, easily overcome in a crowded, Leafs-centric city.
There’s no issue with the product: Canadian football is an exciting variant of the game. The issue is that the Argonauts are operating under the assumption that Toronto is like any other market in the country when it’s not.
If the Double Blue want to improve their market share, they need to recognize the power of television and make a concentrated effort to appeal to fans outside of the Rogers Centre. They need to win over the fans on their couches, not the ones in the stands.