Toronto Stadium Spin?

I am always thinking about the CFL and whether its on the way up in the curve or still in a precarious position where a tiny unfortunate incident may send it spiralling into oblivion to join the XFL and USFL. Right now I am definitely positive about its situation. I still think about this even though I feel less connected with the CFL’s success (in part because it is stronger and doesn’t need every bit of support to survive). It still is a most interesting league, where cities with 60,000 seat dome stadiums compete with small centres with less than half of the capacity.

Of course the reasons it works is because of a league-wide understanding for the necessity of fiscal restraint even with an unenforceable salary cap and a lack of support in some of the big stadium centres. The model actually championed as the saviour of the CFL in the big market for the past few years was the move to smaller, more intimate stadiums based on the success of the Montreal Alouettes. Their move in 1998 to the 20,000 seat Molson Stadium on the campus of McGill University after playing to a large crowd there for a 1997 playoff game has become a recent CFL legend: How an Olympic Stadium conflict with a U2 concert saved the Montreal Alouettes and the CFL. While playing the majority of their regular season games the last seven years to packed houses (and capacity crowds for special regular season and playoff games at 60,000 seat Olympic Stadium) Montreal has realized that they cannot sustain themselves on that size of stadium and has undertaken a project to increase stadium capacity at Molson to over 25,000.

When the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ attendance was revived by a spruce up of Ivor-Wynne Stadium by their wealthy owner the small stadium model was cemented in the minds of CFL executives and owners. The B.C. Lions tried to create atmosphere and demand for tickets by restricting ticket sales to the lower bowl of the domed B.C. Place Stadium. Over a two year period it worked, first by selling out the lower bowl (29,000 and change) while the upper bowl was not opened up. As the word of the exciting team spread, wins piled up and crowds of 40,000 became the norm. A winning team and hosting the Grey Cup didn’t hurt the situation either. Now comments that the Lions should have sought out a smaller, outdoor stadium to bring back the fans (who were staying away they said because they didn’t want to sit indoors in an non-air conditioned stadium on nice summer nights [I’ve read it only rained on Lion games six times since the stadium was built in 1983]) seem ill-advised based on the current situation.

A smaller outdoor stadium was also the cure for the Toronto Argonauts. When Sherwood Schwarz failed to put together a stadium deal, new owners Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon arranged two deals, first for a stadium at the University of Toronto downtown location, then for a stadium at York University. The first fell through, the second they backed out of when they signed a new long-term lease at Rogers Centre (SkyDome) which included cuts of concessions, boxes, parking, merchandise, boxes and other revenue streams as well as better selection of game dates as detailed in this article.

Argo crowds have been up this year, with a peak of 34,000 a few weeks ago. Whether the stadium deals with the Canadian Soccer Association were just to get leverage on a new lease agreement with Rogers Centre or not, they did seem concerned about their game dates, wanting all weekend games which Toronto has not had since moving to the SkyDome. However this year they have had two home dates pushed back to Wednesday starts so the stadium would have more time to switch to a baseball setup.

Which makes me wonder if the Argos are getting shafted again by their landlord and their preference towards baseball or if this was expected all along, and any deal with any dates was better than investing in an outdoor stadium. Certainly next year’s schedule will help determine if Rogers Centre’s intention is for the Argos to get weekend dates they want. Promising weekend dates so all schedules printed show weekend games only to change some dates later won’t fool anyone next year, least of all Argo ticket holders, who have been told they are getting these better dates, and that Rogers Centre is the best location for the team right now, despite their vocalizing a need to move outdoors to a 25-30,000 seat stadium for the past 3-4 years.

So has this all been spin, first for an outdoor stadium, then for staying put and better schedules? Was it for leverage because they had the financial ability behind them to build a stadium so Rogers would know they were not bluffing? Are weekend dates really that important? Was Rogers the fallback position when backlash from Argo fans arose over the remote York University location?

I don’t have answers to these questions as only the insiders really know what went on and who was playing who. I can say if another decent-sized stadium existed for the Argos to move to that was outdoors, then I would understand a move to play most of their games there Since one doesn’t I don’t see how it makes economic sense, partnership with Canadian Soccer or anyone else, to build one. Rogers Centre is sufficient, despite its poor sightlines and fan distance from the field for football in the lower bowl. However with the work they have done blocking off some sections and trying to increase the intimacy along with more marketing, a winning team and better schedule they have brought back the fans with a nice average and an attendance high that exceeds anything they could have had in a new stadium. Certainly I would expect with the revenue sharing in the new stadium lease the Argos would be very close to breaking even or making a profit this year. I think experience tells us they have a better location with the SkyDome than a stadium at York University. Support will grow if they continue their success and make efforts to provide a schedule which makes sense for football. All in all it looks like the best decision for them was to stay put and not follow the new CFL small-stadium model.

The small-stadium model will have its place in the CFL, but it was maybe more of a stadium location model in Montreal rather than a stadium size model that turned it around. Small-stadiums are not a long-term solution however. Eventually a club must put money away in the good times to be able to survive during the bad times and not fall permanently behind competitively. This gives the larger centres an advantage because their good years can be much more profitable for them than for small-stadium clubs. But the CFL economic discrepancies are a topic for another post.

7 Responses to “Toronto Stadium Spin?”

  1. Cindy Says:

    I just need to clarify, you don’t think the CFL is in danger of folding any time soon?

    It seems to me that things are going better than I can ever remember, but I feel really distanced from it. I never hear anything about the Rider’s and the coverage of the Stampeders in Calgary isn’t the same as coverage of the Rider’s in Saskatchewan, I don’t have a clue what is going on with them, except this week they are in the headlines. I would definitely say I am more distanced from what is happening in the CFL as a whole.

  2. Jon Says:

    Sorry if I was unclear. I don’t believe the CFL is in any danger at this moment. Franchises are strong. The only concern would be for Ottawa which really needs a positive winning season or two to solidify themselves and expell some demons of the past. Unfortunately they could be a problem if the new (old) owners start making personnel changes because they can. Big name players (Jesse Palmer) who can’t play won’t bring the fans in, they are too football aware for that in Ottawa. Hopefully they remember their mistakes from last time.

    That was not the point of the post however. Nor was it to comment on the coverage of the CFL in the media or lack of it. That is another post. You are correct. It is hard for the average person to know what is going on in the CFL. But if you are busy and don’t watch the sports channels you won’t know what is going on in any league or sport.

  3. Cindy Says:

    Sorry, my comments weren’t about the main piece of your post. I just thought your opening paragraph was open ended about your opinion, and wanted to clarify.

  4. Jon Says:

    Cindy: I would re-read the first paragraph. I don’t think it is open-ended at all.

  5. jim Says:

    What’s this? Are you saying Jesse Palmer (the Bachelor) is in the CFL? Or was that an example?
    And are you saying that Jesse Palmer can’t play? What was he doing on the Bachelor then?
    There’s a channel here I call the Bachelor channel. It just replays every bachelor and bachelorette program again and again. Jesse’s on right now in fact. Once Korea buys the rights to something they sure do use it. Each one has been run probably 20-25 times literally in the last two years. I think fat Bob is up next. If anybody wants me to tape the entire Bachelor series, just give me a shout.

  6. Jon Says:

    Jim: Jesse Palmer was released by the Giants this fall. Lonnie Glieberman put him on Ottawa’s negotiation list, tried to get him to sign this year. Since he is yet to sign elsewhere in the NFL everyone expects Ottawa to take another run at him over the winter. In 5 years in the NFL he played in 8 games and threw 120 passes as the Giants third-string QB. I’m not saying that he can’t play, he is just unproven especially in the CFL. But starting QB’s in the NFL don’t go on the Bachelor. A pretty face from Ottawa who can’t play the CFL game will not bring wins or fans and won’t be worth the $400-500,000 they will need to throw at him.

  7. Jon Says:

    Correction: Jesse Palmer is still on Montreal’s neg list. Ottawa has yet to acquire those rights.

    From the Ottawa Sun:

    Asked if the Renegades were likely to make an off-season deal with the Als for the neg rights to Jesse Palmer, Gregg replied: “I wouldn’t say it’s totally out of the realm, but it’s probably not that realistic, either.”

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