Well, okay, there isn’t really a National Football League team here, but the Buffalo Bills play two games a season at the Rogers Centre and there are the Toronto Argonauts, historically the Canadian Football League’s most successful team. Football is definitely covered in Canada's largest city.
But I digress. Toronto has eight professional sports teams, on a par with, or better than, the 14 American cities that have teams in the NFL, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.
Unfortunately, this creates a weird competition amongst the teams as they vie for fans attention. I was reminded of this weeks ago when a friend of mine from senior school posted on Facebook “So glad the Leafs suck more than the Raps. At least the Raps have upside”.
Of course, this was before the Raptors embarked on a Cavaliers-esque 13-game losing streak, but the comment got me wondering: what is the best team in Toronto? Which team does the best job of representing a city spoiled for choice?
Here are all of the city’s professional sports franchises, in order of winning percentage over the past two years.
|Team||This season||Last season||Cumulative|
|Rock||.667 (4-2)*||.562 (9-7)†||.615|
|Blue Jays||.525 (85-77)||.463 (75-87)||.494|
|Marlies||.470 (24-20-7)*||.413 (33-35-12)||.442|
|Nationals‡||.250 (3-9)||.583 (7-9) †¥||.417|
|Maple Leafs||.426 (23-26-5)*||.366 (30-38-14)||.396|
|Raptors||.269 (14-38)*||.488 (40-42)||.379|
|Argonauts||.500 (9-9-0) †||.167 (3-15-0)||.336|
|Toronto FC||.300 (9-13-8)||.333 (10-11-9)||.317|
Notes: * - Season currently underway.
† - Made the playoffs.
¥ - Won championship.
‡ - It was announced in the offseason that the Toronto Nationals have moved to the bustling metropolis of Hamilton, Ont., for 2011.
What’s most apparent in this chart is that it’s good to be a fan of lacrosse in Toronto. Especially if you live in the western part of the Greater Toronto Area, since Major League Lacrosse’s Toronto Nationals – the most recent champions in the city – are moving to nearby Hamilton.
But if you want to see a Toronto-based team do well in the regular season and go deep in to the postseason, you’d better pick up the nuances of lacrosse. The Rock are the best team in the NLL this year after losing a close game in the league championship last season.
Further, six of Toronto’s last nine championships have come from lacrosse teams, with the Rock contributing five and the Nationals bringing home the Steinfeld Cup two summers ago. The other three are all thanks to the Toronto Argonauts winning the Grey Cup in 1996, 1997 and 2004.
It’s also worth noting that attendance is seemingly unaffected by a team’s success.
Most Torontonians would immediately twig to the fact that the Maple Leafs, the city’s fifth best team, remain the most popular franchise while the Blue Jays – ranked second – had serious attendance problems last summer.
But what I find most striking is that Toronto FC, the team with the most passionate fans, has the worst record of Hogtown’s professional sports franchises.
In any event, I think this is an interesting exercise that would test perceptions of Toronto’s sports teams. Tell me: were there any surprises on this chart for you?
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.
Last week Major League Soccer successfully negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will last into at least 2014.
The new deal adds quite a few wrinkles to player contracts, including raising the minimum salary to $40,000 USD and creating limited free agency. By all accounts both sides consider the deal to be a victory for their cause.
However, settling this labour dispute before it became an actual work stoppage is the biggest win of all for the MLS and its fans.
Why? Because with the notable exception of recalls or other Enron-like debacles, removing a product from the public consciousness is bad for business. Keeping a high profile, particularly for a relative luxury like a spectator sport, is crucial.
It’s all about building consumer habits. If people know to turn on Seinfeld on Thursday nights, if they can rely on the fact that they’ll have 22 minutes of entertainment every week, they’ll keep coming back.
If fans know they can flip on the TV and tune in to Toronto FC every Saturday afternoon, it’ll be built into their personal schedule. Breaking that habit severs the relationship between the league and its consumers.
In particular, sports outside of the “big four” (football, baseball, basketball and hockey) have to do the most to protect their brand.
Fringe sports like soccer, lacrosse, and auto racing have to make sure that they deliver a high quality product consistently, since they are fighting against leagues that already have generations of fandom. They’re trying to overcome decades, if not centuries, of habitual fandom.
A TV blackout or, worse yet, a labour dispute would wreck any kind of progress the MLS has made in the North American market.
Timing played a big role in this deal. Soccer is poised to step into the spotlight with the American side a serious contender in this summer’s World Cup. Further, David Beckham, the league’s biggest name, is going to be injured for at least the start of the season.
They need to capitalize on the hype surrounding the World Cup as well as soldier on through Beckham’s time off. Missing even part of a season under those circumstances would’ve been disastrous.
MLS also dodged some potentially negative press.
The National Football League and the National Basketball Association seem destined for labour crises in the next two years, and there’s the very real possibility that sports fans are going to become pretty cynical about professional athletes.
There is, after all, a recession on right now. As the National Hockey League Players Association found in the 2004 lockout season, earning millions of dollars playing a sport that you love and asking for more is not a particularly sympathetic stance, even if it is in comparison to billionaire owners.
Distancing the MLS from these other disputes is the right play.
Most of the specifics of the deal haven’t been publicly announced, but just the fact that MLS is guaranteed four more seasons of maintaining and, hopefully, building their public profile is good news.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber is now poised to take advantage of the goodwill created by the World Cup, and maybe even take some of the NFL and NBA’s market share.
This summer could be particularly heart-breaking for fans of the Toronto Raptors as they face the prospect of forward Chris Bosh, arguably the best player the team has ever seen, leaving the city as a free agent.
Toronto Blue Jays fans can sympathize with their basketball neighbours – this summer they lost ace Roy Halladay in a lopsided trade with the Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners.
It’s a familiar story for Torontonians. One of their teams will draft a player who becomes a star, but the franchise player eventually begins to grumble and complain about greener pastures, eventually demanding a trade or letting their contract expire and moving on via free agency.
Fortunately, NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady, a former Raptor, was in town and shed some light on the topic during a shoot-around with his teammates on the New York Knicks.
“Some guys do it for different reasons,” McGrady said. “[Bosh has] been here for quite some time now, and he's personally been successful. The team really hasn't done that much.”
And that’s the problem – teams in Toronto struggle against American competition. There are two main reasons for this:
1. The taxes in Canada limit team’s options when it comes to free agency.
Any professional athlete in a major sport (basketball, baseball, hockey) is going to earn in the high six figures.
In the United States, that would put them in the highest tax bracket, where they’d have to pay about 4.3% of their annual income to the federal government.
Employees in Canada who earn more than $126,264 pay 29% of their annual income to the federal government.
That is a jarring disparity. An athlete who earns $10 million per year on the Blue Jays or the Raptors would have to pay $2.9 million to the taxman. In the United States that same athlete would have to pay $430,000.
It’s tough to compete with other teams for prized free agents when they player will be losing 29% on the dollar just for signing on the dotted line.
2. Teams in Toronto offer less media exposure, making it a less attractive option for players.
Toronto is the biggest media centre in Canada, and actually stacks up pretty well against other North American cities in terms of population (fifth largest city, eighth largest metropolitan area).
However, sports teams based in Toronto get the short end of the stick when it comes to being televised on American networks.
Without a high profile in the United States an athlete can’t capitalize on their secondary source of income – endorsements and sponsorships. For example, Chris Bosh was drafted in 2003, the same year as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. However, Bosh doesn’t even rank in the top 15 for jersey sales, and neither does Toronto for team sales. By comparison, all of Bosh’s draftmates rate highly on the list, even though they play for teams in smaller markets.
It all boils down to money. Professional athletes lose significant amounts of income from both of their main revenue sources, which makes Toronto a tough sell.
Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned hockey, a sport that has six teams in Canada? Simple, really.
Most hockey players are Canadian, and so they’re used to heavy taxation. The second largest group of players in the National Hockey League are European, who are also used to high taxes.
Also, the fact that there are six Canadian teams mitigates the lack of coverage in the United States - ESPN can ignore the Raptors and Blue Jays because they’re the only Canadian teams in the league, but when there’s at least one Canadian team playing every night and every franchise prominently features athletes from Canada, they’ve got no choice but to acknowledge non-American teams.
As an aside, all this adds to the fact that the Buffalo Bills, or any other team NFL team, would not work in Toronto.
All this is to say that in leagues where there is only one Canadian team (NBA, MLB and the MLS) there is a nearly unique set of challenges that face franchises based in Toronto. When the Raptors, Blue Jays and TFC struggle in the standings and begin to lose marquee players, it’s probably because they’re not grappling with the reality of the market.
Sure, a team can draft a young prospect, but it’s tremendously difficult to put together a team that can contend for the championship when so many players see Toronto as an undesirable city to play in.