Staying relevant in Southern Ontario is a battle for the CFL, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and, in particular, the Toronto Argonauts going back to the 1980s.
But with Toronto playing host to the Grey Cup on Sunday on its 100th anniversary, coupled with the CFL’s great fortune at having the Argos playing the Calgary Stampeders in the big game, the question is whether the league and the team can use this to make inroads against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Raptors. Or will the Argos wake up to a Grey Cup hangover with Toronto again turning up its big-city nose at the mom-and-pop CFL once the big anniversary party is over?
Brian Cooper, president of S&E Sponsorship Group, whose clients include CFL clients Scotiabank and SiriusXM Canada, thinks the league and the Argos could miss their chance. As president of the Argos in the heady days of the early 1990s when the team was owned by Bruce McNall, John Candy and Wayne Gretzky, Cooper saw this first-hand when the excitement of winning the 1991 Grey Cup fizzled within a couple of years as attendance plummeted and the star owners sold the team.
“This goes to how you sustain this hype and monetize it into a growing fan base,” Cooper said Wednesday. “It’s an area where they’ve always had this problem. Right now, this is an opportunity they’re never going to have again, in my eyes.
“This is a perfect storm for the CFL. The NHL is not [playing] now because of the lockout. After the Olympics in Vancouver, the Canadian Olympic Committee took their sponsorships to a new level, increasing them across the board. The CFL has to do the same.”
Argonauts president Chris Rudge and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon insist the team and the league are prepared to capitalize. Rudge, who had a share of that Vancouver success as chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, makes no bones about the Argos’ place in the Toronto sports pecking order, but hopes better days are ahead.
“We have to face the fact we are a B- or C-list product in a city that considers itself A-list,” Rudge said. “This is a big city that expects big-city things, so we have to address ourselves in the context of what the city wants.”
The Argos’ average attendance this season at the 45,746-seat Rogers Centre was 23,690. That’s up from 20,018 last season, but down from the 29,000-plus the Argos averaged from 2005 through 2008. While Cohon says the Argos’ television ratings in the Toronto market are up 20 per cent this season, CFL ratings as a whole are down from 2010, for example, when an average of 807,000 people watched CFL games on TSN. This year’s average is 674,000, up almost 40,000 from 2011.
What Toronto wants first, Rudge says, is a winning team. Then the Argos have to get over the fact they will not get the intimate, 25,000-seat stadium everyone says they need to endear themselves to the public.
“I tell our staff the fact is the Rogers Centre is our stadium and focus our energies on that,” Rudge said. “The other excuse we fall back on is this is a cluttered market. Well, there’s five million people in the [Greater Toronto Area] and we need 30,000 people every two weeks.”
The Argos also have to attract a wider audience like new Canadians and young people. Efforts in that area have been under way for some time, Rudge said.
When it comes to exploiting the marketing bounce of the Grey Cup, “there are certainly plans in place,” Rudge said. He added that the staff will study the results of the Grey Cup marketing plans to see what can be applied next season.
There are rumours the CFL will lose some of its national sponsors once this year’s Grey Cup is over, but Cohon says if that is the case, there are other companies willing to replace them. Rona’s deal is finished after the Grey Cup, but Cohon says he is confident the hardware chain will sign on again. A Rona spokeswoman declined to reveal the company’s plans, but noted it’s been with the CFL since 2000.
Most of the other major sponsors, such as Scotiabank and Sun Life Financial, have at least one year left on their contracts.
Richard Powers, a marketing expert and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, thinks the CFL is making the right moves. “If anybody doesn’t know the CFL is holding the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto, they’ve been living under a rock,” he said. “Now it’s up to Mr. Cohon to move this forward.”
No problem, Cohon says.
“The marketing effort in Southern Ontario shows the league recognizes the opportunity,” Cohon said. “I think the focus of the league and the CFL governors is on growing that effort.”