For the Canadian Football League, the Toronto Argonauts are an anomaly; existing as a cornerstone franchise, and, as its albatross.
Without a Toronto franchise the league loses its biggest market, reducing its prestige and influence to a regional, parochial scope.
With this Toronto franchise, it also has a headache.
As currently comprised, the Argonauts are the CFL’s problem child; a thorn in a bed of rose petals.
Everywhere, outside of Toronto, there is good news.
The league has a new collective-bargaining agreement and labour certainty.
New stadiums gleam on the landscapes, from Regina to Winnipeg and Hamilton.
There is more TV money than ever.
In Ottawa, a new franchise, has taken root — even if they can’t figure out what to call themselves. Red? Black? Who cares. Just colour them happy and relevant to the community.
Even with the Argonauts, on the field, there is light over the horizon. Despite a 1-2 record, and some uneven performances, the home opener win over Saskatchewan is described by club CEO and president, Chris Rudge, as perhaps the best game he’s seen the team play since owner David Braley passed him the franchise’s failing torch in January of 2012.
As long as Ricky Ray stays in the pocket, and out of the hands of doctors and marauding linebackers, this is a lineup with a chance to rule a mediocre Eastern side of the CFL.
Management has signed stars such as Chad Owens and Andre Durie long-term, they have a respected coaching staff in place, including a young head coach who has already taken them on a Grey Cup joyride.
No. 1 draft pick Anthony Coombs is drawing raves.
So, what’s not to like?
A darker side of reality reveals that the Argonauts’ biggest problems are off the field; have been for years, and they appear no closer to being solved now then when Sherwood Schwarz was calling the audibles almost two decades ago.
The Argonauts are orphans of the sports world — abandoned by a preoccupied owner who’s heart lies elsewhere.
Braley, much like a sports version of a deadbeat father, would enjoy nothing more than to be rid of a bothersome off-spring.
But no sugar daddy to fill his place has emerged.
This is a team living amongst the highest corporate base in the country, yet they remain an unwanted commodity.
Rudge, who knows where most of the money lives in this city, has been unable to hook up Braley with a buyer.
He was approached by prospective buyers when he first took the job, but says Rudge, “a lot were tire-kickers”.
He has seen this team through three summers, and a Grey Cup. Yet, he has found nobody to love them as their own. Nobody to buy them a home. Nobody to build them a place to play. Nobody. Not even Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, whose ardour was roused, then cooled.
“I go into anything with a great deal of optimism. This has proven to be a bigger mountain to climb than I originally anticipated,” says Rudge, who, when he took the job, foresaw crowds of 30,000-40,000 fans at the Rogers Centre.
There is a small, fiercely-loyal, fan base. Yet, mostly the Argonauts remain ignored. The 2014 home opener came on a beautiful summer afternoon; the roof of Rogers Centre removed for a blue ceiling brushed by puffy white clouds.
The teams who had won the past two Grey Cups were going head to head. Saskatchewan, the best visiting team draw in the league, were in town.
A crowd (and we use the term loosely) of 17,000-and-change, bothered to care.
“I originally thought that if we created a good product … exciting players … we would get more people to come and watch,” says Rudge.
“We had the Grey Cup, one of the most successful ever. Last year we were within (a second-half collapse) of another Grey Cup and this year it looks like we have a good team. We’ve had a good product.”
That product officially drew 16,000 last weekend for a date with Calgary — but the Argos would be lucky if there was 8,000 actually in the stands.
“ … The largest increase in the TV audience has been in southern Ontario, so we’ve been successful in spreading the Argonaut brand. It just hasn’t translated into crowds at the stadium. I don’t have the answer,” says Rudge, “but I’m not giving up … ”
He finds himself in a city with a hundred different diversions from parades to community block parties, Beyonce concerts and theatre. The entertainment dollar is spread thin.
“There’s no reason,” argues Rudge, “to make excuses.”
But disheartening? Yes.
Players put on a brave front, mostly shrugging at the public disinterest. There’s a general “Crowd? What crowd?” attitude.
The team, with a proud history but an uncertain future, has been deemed irrelevant.
This is a franchise that once boasted bombastic coach, and media paramour, Leo (The Lip) Cahill, hockey icon Wayne Gretzky as an owner, and stars such as Joe Theismann and Doug Flutie, a franchise that was part of the fabric of a city, a franchise that could bring 40,000 passionate fans to Exhibition Stadium.
But the stadium disappeared into the mists of history, and the team hasn’t had an owner who really, truely cared since John Candy. And, Candy has been dead for more than 20 years! It is fair to wonder if the team itself can’t be far behind, its demise foretold by those empty seats at every home game.
The silence is deafening — from its owner, from its estranged suitor Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, from an indifferent media, from fans.
In this city, Jose Bautista wins more fan votes than any other Major League Baseball player. Phil Kessel is alternately loved, chided, but never ignored.
There’s a new warm, fuzzy kinship with the Raptors. Everyone knows them. People feel something for them.
This is a team lacking a public profile, and in the world of professional sports, there is one thing worse than being loathed, and that is to be ignored.
BUSES, STRAINS & AUTOMOBILES
Not only do the Argonauts not have a stadium, they shared a practice field at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus with the seagulls.
Every autumn, for a couple decades now, the Canada geese would move in, making for some crappy practices — and we’re not referring to the efforts of the players.
If it rained, snowed, or the field turned into a swamp, everyone abandoned the luxurious portables used as dressing and meeting rooms, and hopped on a bus to one of several indoor soccer facilities that dot the western GTA.
That cuts into practice time. It also meant the occasional players who decided to drive, inevitably would get lost. Not to mention, media assigned to cover practices sometimes wound up staring at a flooded field full of geese, all of whom offered “No comment” when asked where everyone had flown off to?
This year the team moved to York University stadium to practice. Much classier. When nature called, for instance, instead of the nearest bush, it even has indoor plumbing!
Amenities, though, are limited. The Braley Bunch could’ve moved the trailer over from Mississauga for staff to use — except that already burnt down a couple years ago. So, instead, some work out of a cafeteria.
All of which would be laughable, if it wasn’t too sad. High school teams in the United States live swankier. It’s embarrassing. For the team. For the league. For this city.
The big news flash?
While not officially announced, the team is moving to a permanent practice facility at Downsview, adjoining MLSE’s new soccer training facility.
The practice field is ready, and says Rudge, staff and management will be getting their own office space. And, miracle of miracles, it will not come with wheels.
The move is Aug. 11.
For sure. Maybe.
It took 20 years to get a practice facility. And, it may take that long to find another owner because when it comes to the Argos the only sure thing, is that there is no sure thing.
WHO’S THE BOSS?
Braley took sole ownership of the Boatmen in 2010.
He did the league a favour, saving a sinking ship that couldn’t be kept afloat financially by the puppet ownership of Howard Sokoloski and David Cynamon — cynically referred to in some media circles as “The Poor Man’s Jerry Jones” due to his penchant for involving himself in coaching and personnel decisions.
Even before then, Braley reportedly had been quietly bankrolling the team. The Argonauts, can thank him for that much. But, enough with the well-documented platitudes.
The question is, are the Argonauts better off now than when he took control. It can be argued that they are not.
At least when he took control, the franchise could look forward to hosting the 100th Grey Cup in 2012 — which it did with great flair. Of course, the government threw in $10 million to help Braley throw that party.
Otherwise the Argonauts are a bargain-basement operation. Braley keeps the team afloat by paying the necessaries — player salaries, per diems, travel expenses, but that money comes from the CFL’s new lucrative TV deal with TSN.
He doesn’t appear to personally invest himself in the team. He remains a faceless entity. At least his predecessors gave some appearance of caring whether the team won, or lost. Nobody seems to know how Braley feels about anything, except whether he can rattle the MLSE cashbox, and see what might fall his way.
There is a lot of talk about Braley. There is little talk from Braley. He declined a request to be interviewed about the team’s future, or his ownership. Braley will be 75 in 2016. Published reports indicate he wants to sell out before the candles on that cake are lit and that he has come down in price from $20 million to $10 million.
Confidantes, preferring anonymity, indicate his demands, in talks to sell the club to MLSE, were a prime factor in the failure of those talks.
Those same insiders indicate Braley was unimpressed with a blueprint presented for an expanded BMO to house the Argos; voicing his displeasure.
There has been speculation that his relationship with Rudge has cooled, although the Argonauts president would not confirm that.
None of this, of course, is helpful in advancing, or stabilizing, the ownership situation.
Ten million. Twenty. Whatever the price, suffice to say, Braley doesn’t need the money. Chances are that isn’t the point. Foremost he’s a businessman. Which means it’s as much about the art of the deal, as the necessity of it.
Charity begins at home. For Braley, home is not Toronto. He made his millions as the owner of Orlick Industries, an auto-parts company. He grew up in Hamilton, made his home in Burlington, but his sports passion has been his ownership of the B.C. Lions. Which might leave the Argonauts pulling at his purse strings, but not especially at his heart strings.
Some years ago he donated $10 million to a Hamilton medical centre; another $5 million to McMaster’s Braley Athletic Centre. But don’t expect him to give the Argonauts away, particularly not to MLSE, which last time we checked wasn’t a charitable institution.
Braley seems to be all of these.
But as Argonauts’ owner he remains an enigma, once a club insider reveals, even questioning the $200 he was being asked to pay for a unionized bus driver.
It’s stories like that — real or imagined — which can make a team, its players and employees, feel like the unwanted step-child.
Through much of the winter it appeared the Argos might find stability, and a new intimate setting in which to play. Club officials spoke openly about moving under the umbrella of MLSE’s monolithic sports empire.
There was talk that MLSE would renovate BMO Field so the Argos, who must vacate the Rogers Centre after the 2017 season, would have a nifty little park. The city was even willing to throw in $10 million.
And, then, last month … nothing!
MLSE announced it would renovate the stadium, but only for the Pan Am Games, not for football.
“It’s up to MLSE. I can bring them together, I can’t make it (a deal) happen,” says Rudge.
So, what’s the hold-up?
None of the parties involved have explained, Rudge deferring comment to Braley.
A request for a telephone interview with MLSE president and CEO, Tim Leiweke, was delayed from last week, to Monday, then postponed again to a moment to be determined later.
The inner workings of MLSE are complex, with an ownership group of Bell Media, Rogers Communication, and Larry Tanenbaum, each of whom have their own, as well as their joint, interests.
Bell and Rogers, in particular, are both friend and foe.
“That’s a big part of the issue. When you have two organizations that compete hammer and tong,” admits Rudge, “ … it is difficult to manage behind closed doors.”
As for Tanenbaum, he has historically indicated an interest in the Argonauts. But going it alone would seem suicidal. He needs the synergy that a huge operation such as MLSE can provide, from marketing to sales, to make it economically viable.
But, Bell and Rogers aren’t buying.
Rudge is well-connected with the business and political elite in this city. If he is unable to broker a deal, it is difficult to see who might.
“I think it still will happen … should happen. This is a property that could be profitable for (MLSE),” says Rudge.
“Hand-wringing doesn’t get you anywhere. Over the years a series of owners haven’t been able to solve (the team’s) problems. A move to BMO would do that in a short time.
“Putting 20-to-25,000 paid fans into BMO Field would put this team in the black. MLSE involvement would certainly do that.”
MLSE’s diverse family interests can be vexatious. Bell owns TSN; Rogers owns its competitor, Sportsnet.
Recently TSN had its hockey programming gutted when Rogers bought the rights to NHL games. Don’t think that didn’t cause a little friction.
Coincidentally, Bell’s TSN has the CFL rights.
Rogers, which is keen to see the Argos vacate the Rogers Centre (so it can install natural grass for the Blue Jays which they own); have little or no interest in the Double Blue.
Keith Pelley, the president of Rogers, was formerly president of the Argonauts, but that was during the Cynamon ownership era. With Cynamon and Pelley no longer holding an interest in the Argonauts, the Rogers’ Sportsnet group rarely covers the Argos, treating them with all the affection of a flea-bitten, junk-yard dog.
When it comes to MLSE, there are lots of dots. It just gets very difficult to figure out if, or how, to connect them.
What is obvious, is that on Toronto’s sporting map, the Argonauts once again are left as an island unto themselves, disabused of any fanciful notion that somebody with a Double Blue passion might actually buy them, own them, and show them some love.
NFL … CARROT … STICK
The Argonauts once were viewed as Toronto’s pathway into the National Football League for a Toronto NFL bid group.
Buy the team. Operate it successfully. Impress the NFL. Work the room at NFL owners’ meetings. Apply for a franchise in dire straits. Maybe get an expansion franchise. Whatever. It would all work out.
Such was conventional wisdom.
But in recent times, Toronto, as well as Los Angeles, have simply been prostituted. Current NFL owners use the threat of moving to get state and municipal governments to build them grand new palaces. In Minnesota nearly $500 million in public funds have been thrown at the Vikings. The City of Santa Clara is on the hook for hundreds of millions as it backs a new stadium for the 49ers.
In Cincinnati, the county government recently cut health and school spending so it could give the Bengals more than $30 million in public subsidy.
The Atlantic Magazine last year calculated that 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums has been provided by taxpayers, not NFL owners, who are some of America’s richest individuals.
Meantime, Toronto city council plays the pauper. Chances are that helping MLSE fund an NFL franchise isn’t high on Olivia Chow’s election platform.
As for Ontario? Like Kathleen Wynne is going to stand up in the Legislature and announce there won’t be any more breakfast programs for school kids so her government can, instead, fund a stadium to help MLSE get an NFL team?
As well, buying the Argonauts to eventually use them as a corporate springboard to get the Buffalo Bills, looms as a non-starter.
There’s some question which might come first: a time when the Bills will no longer be locked into a lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium, or the start of the next Ice Age.
So it is that Braley may lessen his demands, although there is no indication of that. MLSE might still end up buying the Argonauts. Although, there is no motivation for them to make it happen soon.
What there is are internal disagreements within MLSE, an owner estranged from his team and its community, a detached media, and an apathetic fan base.
What there is, is a team living in purgatory.
A team talking and waiting, ceaselessly, in a gridiron interpretation of Godot.