Amidst Blue Jays mania, an invitation to consider Toronto’s fifth most-popular sporting draw.
The Blue Jays’ first postseason run in a generation has swept the city, filling bars and making tickets the hottest commodity in town. Lost in the excitement of the SkyDome hosting games in late-October is the fact that the SkyDome has always hosted late-October games. These games are played by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, roommates with the Jays since the SkyDome was called the SkyDome. The arrangement has never been convenient.
The SkyDome exists because Ontario Premier Bill Davis was caught in the rain at the Grey Cup game in 1982. The incident spurred a movement to get the football team a roof — which was the first and only time the needs of the Argos were prioritized before those of the Jays.
The Argos play nine home games a year to the Jays’ 81, and because it takes a day to rearrange the field from one sport to another, convenience dictates that the Jays’ schedule take precedence. This leads to an awkward schedule for the Argos — they play most of the first half of the season on the road, followed by an end-of-season homestand that usually sees games played on odd days at odd times. Monday and Tuesday evening games are common, and often followed by a Saturday afternoon game. The effect is that fans go from complaining about a lack of games to wishing the team didn’t play so much, basically overnight. This year, the Jays success has made the SkyDome completely unavailable, resulting in the Argos playing “home” games in Ottawa and Hamilton.
Canadian Football fans — who do, indeed, exist in this city — are familiar with this lack of respect. In Toronto, the Leafs continue to be the team. The Raptors average over 19,000 fans a game while Toronto’s Football Club (TFC) was pulling in 22,000 fans last season. Meanwhile, baseball is filling the 49,000 seats available. When the field is set up for football, the Dome can fit 4,000 more fans. Those extra seats are not needed. Attendance hovers around 15,000 for the Argos, but as anyone at the game can tell you, a sold seat doesn’t necessarily mean a body in it. Realistically, the Dome is maybe a fifth full for most regular season football games. The only time the SkyDome approaches capacity for non-playoff football is when the NFL’s Buffalo Bills come to town.
Fans know football is a tough sell in this city, but the league itself won’t acknowledge this. The promotional material from the commissioner’s office has a sunny sort of self-aggrandizing flair to them that seems far removed from reality; on the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup in 2012, they tried to rally Canadians behind the slogan, “This is Our Game,” which it most certainly is not. They installed a historical exhibit in a train car that toured the country, combining Canadian football history with all the fun of waiting for a train. Worse yet, the league often tries to establish relevance in the professional football community. A few seasons back, the Argos’ own Chad Owens set a record for combined yardage in a single season. A huge deal was made of this being a record for professional football — referring, of course, to both the CFL and NFL. Yet, it’s hard to believe that NFL players are too concerned with that record. Canadian football fans would feel more embarrassed about this sort of behaviour from their league if they didn’t know what the league refuses to acknowledge: You can’t make people care about the CFL.
And this despite the Argos being Toronto’s oldest and most successful franchise. In a city starved for championships, the Argos have 16 Grey Cups. The most recent of these was nabbed in 2012, when the 100th Grey Cup was played in a SkyDome packed with people jumping on the CFL bandwagon for the one glorious night that it was the hottest ticket in town. Compare that to the 3,041 fans who showed up for last week’s “home” game in Hamilton.
The team is returning to its old home next season: the Exhibition Grounds. BMO Field is smaller, so games will at least look better attended. And much has been made of the fact that the team will be playing the game on real grass — meaning that the game is outdoors, which you’ll recall is why the team left there in the first place. It remains a sub-ideal arrangement — instead of the Jays taking precedent, it will be the Toronto Football Club. But there’s nothing more Argosesque than not only being the fifth-most popular team in town, but also the second-most popular football team.