It is more than ironic that the city that appreciates Canadian football the least, is the venue for the biggest game of all. With the Toronto Argonauts one win away from being the home team in the 100th Grey Cup, if this doesn't awaken an appetite and passion for three-down football in the nation's largest city, what will?
The Toronto Argonauts have had Grey Cup success as recent as 2004. The franchise has won 15 championships out of their 21 visits to the Grand National Drunk. They are the oldest professional sports team in North America, and they have 39 Hall of Fame players to their credit. The city has more people to draw from than any other market in Canada, yet for as long as most football fans can remember, this storied club has rarely experienced any semblance of viability.
The stewards of the CFL have been very patient with Toronto, and for good reason. You could make an argument that virtually every other franchise, save for Hamilton, was far more deserving of the century mark distinction of Canadian football than this city. Yet everyone is resigned to the fact that the CFL needs Toronto more than Toronto needs the CFL, so the appointment of this historical game has been met with very little criticism.
In every CBA negotiation I participated in, Toronto was always brought up as the CFL's road block to prosperity. The game-day experience has been most accurately compared to playing football in a shopping mall, with just enough chatter and buzz to make the Rogers Centre feel awkward. It is a 50-50 proposition when you see someone on the street wearing Argonaut gear, that they work or play for the football team. The only businessperson with the stones to keep this franchise afloat already owns another team, and a former league commissioner once referred to the Greater Toronto Area squad as the anchor of the league.
These are the storylines that have plagued this marketplace for as long as I remember. The question at the forefront is whether the team and environment are finally ready to carve out a niche from a base of almost six-million people. Are all the pieces at last in place to bring stability to this critical region?
It was not too long ago that the B.C. Lions were an afterthought in Vancouver. Yet with the ownership injection provided by David Braley and the just-add-hot-water instant credibility of Wally Buono, it is now a successful and respected team, soon to be for sale to the highest bidder. While Toronto GM Jim Barker does not carry the weight of a Wally Buono, he does have the same ownership behind him and may have finally put together a team that could be competitive for years to come.
The Argonauts had the worst overall offence the last five consecutive years in the CFL, until this year. While they were never a free spot on your bingo card because of an unrelenting defence and a special teams unit that would handicap the field for their offence, they now look like a balanced football team. Due to what can only be described as massive incompetence by former Edmonton GM Eric Tillman, they also have a durable and cool-as-a-cucumber hall of fame quarterback. They have one of the most explosive and exciting players in the CFL in Chad Owens, and a host of other noteworthy complements to go with the defence and special teams we have come to expect. So in other words, they finally have the team that should appeal to the masses.
The board of governors in the CFL gave Toronto a $500,000 marketing windfall to promote the game at the grassroots level in 2012, and the team has the biggest celebration of Canadian football of all time, undeservedly, in two weeks. Whether the Argonauts defeat the Alouettes next weekend and become the home team in the host city -- which the league must be hoping for -- if this celebration and resurrection of football competency doesn't entice the masses, what will? Or will the Grey Cup game, out of necessity, become an annual rite of passage in Toronto, since for the moment, it is the only game that sells out due to an influx of out-of-town fans?
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.