Many of us were looking forward to welcoming the Buffalo Bills to Toronto. The eight games they’ll play here over the next five years could’ve been the perfect complement to our existing football diet of live Argonauts games and televised NFL matches. Now that the details have been announced, more than a few of us have been priced out of attending. The majority of tickets average into the $350 per game range, and are only available if you ante up for all eight games at once. As Dave Perkins laments in The Star, the arrangements clearly lay the groundwork for Ted Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum to bring the NFL to Toronto full-time. Granted, there’s the unlikely possibility that Bills owner Ralph Wilson is using the games as leverage to extort further concessions from the taxpayers of Buffalo, but he’s not exactly denying the possibility of eventual relocation. This is simply the latest chapter in Toronto’s long-running soap opera love affair with “big league” American football. A couple past episodes in this drama are indicative of how this pursuit has evolved from quiet self-confidence to the fervent desire to be validated as a “big league” city.
Given the precarious position the CFL has been in for much of the last twenty-five years, it’s hard to imagine a time when the league was a pillar of institutional stability compared to the NFL. The rise of the NFL from fledgling regional organization to the massive monopoly we recognize today can be charted with the rise of television in the 1960s as the dominant entertainment medium. Until that time, the NFL’s stability was always under siege by upstart leagues and the dominance of college football. The teams in the CFL, on the other hand, had already been civic institutions for almost half a century, and routinely poached high-priced players from NFL rosters. The CFL was far more popular in Toronto than the NFL, as demonstrated by an August 1960 NFL exhibition game staged here. Torontonians balked at the $7.50 admission, leaving a measly 5,401 people in Varsity Stadium’s 25,000 seats and causing the promoters to lose $30,000. In comparison, the Argos had just moved into CNE Stadium, and they routinely filled most of its 35,000 seats by charging a maximum admission of four dollars. On the field, Star sportswriter Jim Hunt called it an “extremely well played game” characterized by the “rough and tough” defensive matchup typical of the NFL. Despite being a pre-season game, the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears—two of the league’s better teams—kept their stars in for most of the match. Nevertheless, Canadian fans were disappointed by the low-scoring affair and thought the American rules were bizarre. The fair catch rule was especially aggravating. As Hunt recounted, “The sight of a half-dozen 250-pounders standing over a ball, waiting for it to roll to a stop, was too much for the crowd.” The fans reacted with catcalls, heckling the NFLers. Reflecting on the game, Hunt concluded that “the slim crowd undoutedly poured cold water on any hopes Toronto may have had of getting an NFL franchise.”
Instead, Torontonians settled for the Toronto Rifles, a franchise in the semi-pro, wannabe Continental Football League from 1965 to 1967. With money-losing teams spread from Norfolk to Fort Wayne, and nicknames like the Charter Oaks and Acorns, the Continental League had a bush-league image. Although reasonably popular and fun to watch, the Rifles simply couldn’t compete with the Argos for the hearts and minds of Toronto’s football fans. Playing out of Varsity Stadium and Maple Leaf Stadium (at the foot of Bathurst Street) limited attendance at Rifles games. With a league average attendance of only 5,000 per game, gate revenues could not offset the lack of a television contract, and the league’s roster of teams fluctuated wildly from season to season. In contrast, it had been years since there was an unsold seat at CNE Stadium for the Argos. Economically speaking, it was just a matter of time before the Rifles departed. On field, however, the Rifles were a resounding success under the coaching of Leo Cahill. Playing four-down football, the Toronto Rifles finished 11-3 in 1965, only to lose in the inaugural championship game. They followed up with another playoff appearance before folding in 1967. During the same period, the Argonauts were the laughingstock of the CFL. In a move that would have a deep impact on the franchise for a generation, the Argos lured Cahill across town. The popular Cahill coached the Boatmen through a highly successful, albeit championship-less, era. Many of the league’s star players became prominent in the CFL.
Toronto’s attempts to lure American-brand football to Toronto have, at times, reeked of the anxious sentiment that anything American is better than anything Canadian. Such was the case in 1973 when John F. Bassett bought a franchise—nicknamed the Toronto Northmen—in the short-lived World Football League. Attempting to become a first-tier team in a third tier league, Bassett signed three of the NFL’s biggest stars—running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, and wide receiver Paul Warfield—away from the Miami Dolphins. Fearing the potential collapse of the CFL, the Trudeau government introduced the Canadian Football Act to prohibit the establishment of any American-based football league on Canadian soil. Thwarted, Bassett moved his team to Memphis without ever playing a game in Toronto, and spent years (after the WFL folded half-way through its second season) unsuccessfully attempting to get the franchise accepted into the NFL. According to Jay Teitel’s The Argo Bounce, Bassett’s Northmen intensified the “growing excitement among star-struck Toronto football fans” for big-money, big-name world of American football. And now that the Bills have come courting, there won’t be any similar protectionist legislation. Nor should there be.
It’s nice to optimistically imagine that there’s 30,000 die-hards who’ll continue to cheer on every Argos home game, and that the league can remain a viable and competitive business. But if the depressingly empty seats at a Marlies game are any indication, status anxiety prevents Torontonians from supporting any team that isn’t perceived as big-league. In the absence of some sort of CFL-NFL agreement being worked out, there’s the real possibility that the Argos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will eventually disappear. The loss of the teams could void the CFL’s existing television contract, and the Canadian league itself would be starved out of national advertising and sponsorship revenue by the NFL franchise. There are tons of CFL haters who’d revel in seeing the league die. But for those who watch both brands of football—enjoying each according to its own merits—it would be crushing to watch the CFL slowly drained of life. So if it can’t evolve with the times, here’s hoping the CFL can go quickly and never be allowed to become a whimpering government-subsidy of Canadian cultural protectionism.
Thanks to reader Love of Sports for pointing out that John W.H. Bassett was the media tycoon who owned the Argos, and it was his son, John F. Bassett, who was behind the Northmen. We regret the error.
Top photo by gbalogh and second photo by ontheleftside from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.