By Tyler Hehn
The Argos, otherwise called the Boatmen and the Double Blue, are among the most storied teams of any sport on the planet, but for some reason do not command the same respect as even the Blue Jays or the Raptors. Both have far less history and success, but have towered over the Argonauts in home game attendance.Despite The Toronto Argonauts being the oldest single-named franchise in North America with 143 years of history, they don’t get the appreciation they deserve.
With the exception of the ‘60s, they have played a championship game in every decade since 1910. They have 22 Grey Cup appearances and 16 Grey Cup wins (10 pre-date the CFL). Statistically that’s a 75 per cent chance of winning a championship if they are one of the two teams in the finals. Numbers aside, amazing people strap on the pads and lace up the cleats for the city week in week out. Sometimes we forget they aren’t just machines out there.
“If people were to meet the players that play in the CFL, they would fall in love with the game, and they would fall back in love with the Argos,” said Lori Bursey, president of the Friends of the Argonauts official fan club. She is heralded as ‘perhaps the biggest football fan in all of Toronto’ by the Argonauts themselves. Bursey says she wants to see the city recognize these amazing athletes.
Maybe Toronto is just too saturated with sports franchises to pay attention to the Argos. The stadium is too big and every game seems like a ‘dress like a chair’ day. During the Blue Jays playoff run last year, fewer than 4,000 fans were in attendance for two straight home games. The Rogers Centre blocks off roughly half of the seats (53,000 capacity regular vs 27,000 capacity for Argo home games) with banners, and the yearly average was only half of that reduced capacity. In a stadium built for 50,000 bodies, 4,000 fans is only 12.5 per cent capacity. Both games were losses, one of them a 34-2 blowout at the hands of the Montreal Alouettes.
Maybe this is already old news and this season is going to be the start of a new era for a franchise that’s been ignored for too long. That last one sounds the best.
The players feed off the emotion from the fans, and the fans feed from the emotion of the players. It’s a viciously positive cycle that doesn’t answer the question of why the Argonauts are head and shoulders the worst supported team in the CFL.
A man who knows a thing or two about success, emotion and pure unfiltered love for the game is Ricky Foley. This elite defensive star is entering his fifth year in Toronto. Foley has three Grey Cup championships with three different teams. He won his first ring as a rookie in B.C. with the Lions, his second in 2012 here in Toronto and his third the next year in Saskatchewan for the Roughriders. He’s won three Most Outstanding Canadian Player awards so far, one for the regular season, one for the entire Western Division, and one during the 100th Grey Cup win at home in Toronto. He is a ruthless monster on the field among other monsters, but a gentleman out of uniform.
“One of the best things in the world – I don’t know if fans know this, I’m sure the real fans do, the die hard fans do – but for a defensive player especially a pass rusher such as myself,” Foley said. “When it’s second and long and I raise my hands up to get the crowd noise and they get up off their seats and they start clapping and cheering and the other team’s quarterback can’t hear the snap count, we have an advantage.”
“It’s such a huge advantage to get on the ball quicker and get in the backfield. You make that play on second down forcing that team to get off the field. Or, it’s late in the game and it’s a last minute two-minute drive and you end the game with a sack or a quarterback hit. There is nothing like it. The thrill, the rush, the cheer. There honestly is nothing like it.”
That sounds pretty awesome, but there is a catch. In order for noise to be increased by the audience to a volume so loud that an opposing quarterback cannot hear his teammate mere feet away rests on the assumption that there are Argonaut fans at the game. If there are no fans, there is no noise and no advantage for the home team. If this sounds crazy, let’s look at the numbers.
The last year the Argos won was in 2012 and that year they averaged just over 23,500 fans per home game. The Saskatchewan Roughriders, who didn’t do nearly as well lost the last four games of the year and averaged more than 32,000 fans per home game. The Roughriders is a team that is aptly named after the entire province and not just one city because almost everybody in Saskatchewan is a part of Rider Nation. This shouldn’t matter for a team in Toronto, a city that has a population double that of Canada’s bread basket.
“There is just nothing like it out there in Saskatchewan, there really isn’t,” said Foley. “And if people are going to be honest about it that’s probably the goal that every franchise wants to achieve. They want that fan support, and that kind of crowd and atmosphere.”
Last year was as close to a record setting low as a CFL team could get for Argonauts’ attendance. A measly average of 12,430 fans was all the city could muster for a team one play away from a 23rd Grey Cup appearance. A team that is a skip and a hop away from Toronto, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, averaged a hair short of double the home attendance of the Argonauts.
Don’t sound the alarms just yet, let’s take a deeper look at the reasons.
Hamilton played in the brand new Tim Horton’s Field for the first full year in 2015, moving out of the historic Ivor Wynne Stadium. The new field is beautiful with a capacity of 24,500, which means that every game was virtually sold out.
It might be perfect timing for the Boatmen to pack up and ship out of the Rogers Centre and into BMO field similar to what the Tiger-Cats did two years ago. That’s what Carol Rose, president of the Cats Claws fan club for Hamilton reiterated.
Rose said the new stadium had a tremendously positive effect on the Tiger-Cats’ home attendance. In 2013 Hamilton’s home average was 13,000, very comparable to Toronto’s now. Rose says that no doubt the new stadium will bring fans for the Argos.
“I think it’s going to be a great move.You guys are going to notice such a difference,” said Rose.
Even though Rose and the Cats Claws are rivals of the Argonauts, she says Bursey has been a good friend of the Ti-Cats.
“Years ago when (Hamilton was) in danger of losing the team, we did several events together here in Hamilton, so yeah it’s a friendly rivalry,” Rose said.
Bursey said that BMO field is going to see a better quality of game on the field considering the grass field and different management.
“Sitting outside again, in a new stadium where there are fewer challenges in terms of the schedule, and the players are excited.”
It would be hard for players not to be excited considering the turnout in 2015.
“It was bad last year. You’re supposed to have a home field advantage and sometimes those teams from Hamilton would come down and would be as loud as our fans,” said Foley.
He talked about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, in their new stadium that now feels like every fan is on the field with the team because they are so loud.
“I don’t see why we can’t do that at BMO. Once you start getting a smaller stadium, more intimate, you start creating more demand and it’s a better experience on game day. I know we got the fans, we do have the fan base,” said Foley.
To the credit of the fans, it was a busy year for Toronto sports. The Blue Jays won the American League Division title for the first time in 20-something years. The Raptors set a franchise record for the most wins in a season and were one point out of third place for almost as long. As for the Leafs, well, nobody really understands why they are so well liked. The city definitely had a fever, but the fans didn’t catch it.
Foley says successful sports teams in the city make a difference. “When the local teams are doing well, that can drive the sporting culture in the city. I really believe that. I think we could have actually capitalized on the Blue Jays’ momentum last year,” Foley said.
Bursey is a long-time season ticket holder, and she says season’s tickets for entire sections are already being bought up. Things are going to be very different than last year, tickets are going to be more exclusive, and games are going to be more motivated on the grass field.
There is one exhibition game against Hamilton on June 11, and then the real deal regular season against the Ti-Cats again on June 23. Argo fans are going to have to drown out Hamilton’s ‘Oskee-wee-wee’ chants four times this year, or more depending on post-season positioning. Also, the Grey Cup is being played on BMO this year, all the more reason to cheer them.