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Honey, I bought the Argos Add to ...

When businessmen Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon were introduced at a press conference last week as the proud new owners of the ailing Toronto Argonauts franchise, they made the leap into public life. While Toronto is still on a honeymoon with the pair, full of hope that they can restore the team's glory, fans want to know who these newcomers are. But in conversations around town, the first thing anyone cites about either man is his wife. Mr. Sokolowski is recently married to writer Linda Frum, daughter of developer Murray Frum and the late Canadian broadcast legend Barbara Frum. Mr. Cynamon is married to Stacey Pencer, daughter of Nancy and the late Gerry Pencer, of Cott Corp.

Business-wise, Mr. Cynamon is now CEO of KCP Income Fund. He made his name as a hotshot executive at KIK Corp., a manufacturer of no-name detergent. Recently turned 40, he is no longer eligible for Report on Business magazine's top 40 managers under 40 list, which he made twice.

Mr. Sokolowski, 51, builds homes by the thousands, mainly in the 905 belt, through his company, Tribute Communities. He is the guy who "doesn't put the garage door in the front of the house," he says; his latest venture is what he calls an "integrated" community of 500 homes near York University.

So they are young and rich and it is clear they have the corporate side wrapped up. That may be the reason everyone is so keen on this duo. Now, they must win the hearts of Toronto's ticket-buying public, already enraptured by the Leafs and the Raptors.

Oddly, the two had never met before this past July; but they were the two most serious suitors and ended up paired up to buy the team. Once they did meet, they started adding up the coincidences: The two live around the corner from each other in Forest Hill, they have sons at the same school (Upper Canada College) and, Mr. Sokolowski says, they once both "went after the same cottage on Lake Joseph."

It is a high-status weekend hobby the men have taken up and Canadian Football League insiders take heart from their enthusiasm. Both of the new owners claim to be superfans, and eyewitnesses at last week's playoff game in which the Argos lost to the Montreal Alouettes say the two were visibly gripped by the action on the field. Mr. Cynamon describes himself as "charged, emotionally into it," and says that at the games, even though they don't actually take ownership of the team until after tomorrow's Grey Cup, he is "on pins and needles."

Much is being made of the fact that Mr. Cynamon and Mr. Sokolowski are the first local owners of the team in about 30 years. The Argos enjoyed a flurry of excitement in the early '90s when Wayne Gretzky, Bruce McNall and John Candy briefly owned the team. The most recent owner, Sherwood Schwarz, is a businessman from New York who saw his first CFL game only after he had purchased the Argos.

And though television viewership has been trending upward for the past five years and attendance is up in most CFL cities (a rowdy crowd of 60,000 turned up last weekend at Olympic Stadium in Montreal), the Argos have been attracting a sparse 15,000 or so die-hards to games at the SkyDome this season. The men assert that Toronto is a proven sports town and that with good management and a new outdoor stadium, the Argos could pay off handsomely. "We all neglected them. But the Argos are gonna survive," cheers Mr. Cynamon.

He has been a fan since his boyhood in Edmonton, and worked at his father's concession stands at the Eskimos games. He used to paper his walls with player photos torn from the newspaper. A keen athlete himself, he moved to Toronto to play football at York University and has since completed four triathlons. The Cynamons have two sons and a daughter, all under 10, who are "rapidly becoming football fans" thanks to their dad's new weekend job. As for the schoolyard bragging rights about daddy owning a team, "it hasn't gone to their heads -- yet."

Bruce Bronfman of Ontario MRI worked with Mr. Cynamon early in his career. He believes the skills that have made him a star in business will serve him well in this venture. "He's very focused in business terms on an end goal. He knows where he'd like to be and he works hard to get there. He's relentless" -- pause -- "in a good way."

Mr. Sokolowski grew up in Toronto and remembers games in the Exhibition Stadium era, when this city was feverish about football. He describes himself as less of a jock than his new partner. Fresh out of York University in 1976, Mr. Sokolowski cut his developer teeth on 33 homes. Today, throughout the Golden Horseshoe, he works mainly in blocks of a thousand homes. His highest-profile deal involved the 400 homes he installed on the site of the old Greenwood racetrack, a planned community called The Beach.

Mr. Sokolowski and Ms. Frum have an eight-month-old daughter; Ms. Frum has nine-year-old twins from a first marriage and Mr. Sokolowski has two children now in their early 20s. He waxes quite poetic about his wife, with compliments on her "excellent" mothering skills and boundless support: "Linda was not a big fan of football, but she is a big fan of Howard," he says, using the third person to describe himself, "so she's learning the game."

Sasha Josipovicz is an interior designer and developer who worked on the super-sized mansion Mr. Sokolowski and Ms. Frum built on Dunvegan Road in Forest Hill, among other projects. He says Mr. Sokolowski is "very persistent and completely in charge." People, he says, "will do humongous favours for him."

Both men talk about how they are buying a 130-year-old brand, "not just a sports franchise," Mr. Sokolowski says. "This is a distinctly Canadian game, a cultural institution. On Sunday, six million of us will stop and take note" of the Grey Cup between the Alouettes and the Edmonton Eskimos. "There is a pent-up love" for the Argos in this city, he adds.

Mr. Cynamon is convinced that the fans who can't afford a $200 Raptors seat (or who haven't inherited Leafs tickets) will want to make the Argos a family experience. The average price of an Argos ticket is about $30. One of the first things they pledged as owners was marketing and advertising to get the word out, and Mr. Cynamon is keen on replicating the visceral experiences of his youth. "When Warren Moon [who led the Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup titles in the '70s and '80s]would come out to your school or to your football camp, in your mind he was your best friend. We need to get Pinball [head coach Mike Clemons]out there. He loves to hug, he's a big teddy bear."

But it's not all about warm fuzzies. Neither man appears as willing to lose money as past owners have been. "This is a business deal," Mr. Sokolowski says. "The business model has to make sense financially." A new stadium is in discussions, in concert with Soccer Canada and lots of cash from various levels of government.

"In the early '80s, everyone was clamouring for a domed stadium. Today, there is a yearning to get back outdoors and enjoy the elements, get the fans closer to the game," Mr. Sokolowski says. And now, a bonus sports cliché: If they build it, we will probably come.

ldelap@globeandmail.ca

 

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