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Everyone loves the CFL (except Toronto)

Toronto may be playing host to the 104th Grey Cup this weekend, but considering how uninterested the city is in the CFL, writes Cathal Kelly, perhaps it’s time the league just forgot about trying to woo football fans there and focus on the rest of the country

It is the rural Irish custom that the dead be participants at their own wake. When the house is small and the turnout large, the casket, including corpse, might be stood on end and propped up in a corner.

If the deceased has had a long and happy life, the atmosphere is celebratory, occasionally veering into bacchanalian. If you’ve ever been to one, it’s a reminder of how differently each of us deals with the proximity of death.

On Sunday, we’ll get to watch how the Canadian Football League celebrates the demise of its franchise in the country’s largest city. It died during summer, but we’ve waited this long for the party. Attendance will be grudging. Then, they’ll play a game no one here cares about.

The only mourners – the rest of the CFL – are still stuck in the first stage of grief, which is denial.

“The goal for me is perpetuating the future of the CFL,” commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said this week, making the league sound rather like a coma patient. “It is really focused on making sure that the next 104 Grey Cups are as successful as the last 104.”

There’s a problem with that sentence. It assumes that this weekend’s 104th Grey Cup is already “successful.” By any reasonable measure, it isn’t. It’s a public-relations disaster. The only way it could get worse is if a piece of space debris crashes into BMO Field during the anthem.

On Wednesday, the Toronto Argonauts announced that there were “less than” 2,000 seats remaining for the game. This was framed as exciting news, rather than what it is – an admission of defeat.

Ottawa RedBlacks fan Jordan Fleck takes part in the Mini Combine test during fan events at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Nov 24 2016. Fleck and about twenty of his friends flew down from Ottawa to take in the 104th Grey Cup game between the Ottawa RedBlacks and the Calgary Stampeders this weekend.

The Grey Cup is meant to be the one sporting event on our national calendar whose importance is disconnected from the teams involved. It’s more a ritual than a contest, and as such should be above the vagaries of ticketing price-points or competitive matchups.

When Toronto didn’t buy in, it was framed as a financial issue. Who’s got 200 bucks to go to a game anyway?

By the looks of it, everyone.

This city is full of people happy to spend gobs of cash watching the Jays play in August or the Raptors face the dregs of the NBA. No fans in the world are more willing to pay handsomely to watch bad teams play meaningless games. For many years, it was our sporting raison d’être.

The Grey Cup’s failure in Toronto isn’t an accounting screw-up. People didn’t buy the tickets because they don’t care any more. They haven’t for a long, long time.

When Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. planned a nine-figure expansion of BMO Field, the Grey Cup was held up as one of the main reasons. This was going to be more than a soccer stadium – it was going be the thing that saved football in Toronto. Sunday’s Grey Cup would be the culmination of that mission.

They’d bring the game back into the outdoors. Make it an urban concern. A renaissance. It was the sort of romantic notion super-rich people can’t resist.

Conrad Brock, left, and his friend Mike Hassel attend Grey Cup fan events at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Nov 24 2016. Brock is wearing the colours of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Mike is wearing Calgary Stampeders colours. The 104th Grey Cup will be played between the Calgary Stampeders and the Ottawa redBlacks this weekend.

Counterintuitively, MLSE was prodded into this stance by the National Football League. When co-owner Larry Tanenbaum was in the midst of planning a bid to buy the Buffalo Bills, it was made clear that the NFL wanted no part in killing off its northern cousin. The Toronto group would only be considered if the Argos survival could be guaranteed. The only way to do that was to buy the team.

The issue drove a wedge between Mr. Tanenbaum and then MLSE president Tim Leiweke, the American who was so good at taking Toronto’s temperature. Mr. Leiweke knew the move was a loser, but he did it to keep the peace. If it was going to be a mistake, at least it would be a relatively inexpensive one.

The NFL bid imploded, but MLSE had already put the Argos in the recovery position and begun compressions.

For years, the Argos could blame their poor attendance on being forced to play in the mausoleum that is the Rogers Centre. It was a self-reinforcing delusion – the fewer people came, the more sense the excuse made.

Once they began half-filling BMO Field, the little lies the CFL had been telling itself – “the fans’ll come back” – collapsed. It was made far worse by the fact that, in the regular season, Toronto FC continued to draw near-sellout crowds in the same stadium and for the same prices.

Soccer didn’t kill football in Toronto, but by putting the two things side-by-side, it was impossible not to notice that one of them wasn’t breathing any more.

Sports leagues are full of zombie franchises animated by magical thinking and revenue sharing. But in order to thrive, a team has to fill a room.

It’s an awful feeling going to a game that everyone else has skipped. You begin to think you’ve lost touch with your neighbours and their tastes. It makes you feel uncool.

Saskatchewan Roughrider fan Ethel Mongovius, 85, taking a break after shopping at the Grey Cup store in the South Building, Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Nov 24 2016. Ethel, showing her jacket covered in crests from every CFL team except the Ottawa RedBlacks. and her family came from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for the 104th Grey Cup game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Ottawa RedBlacks. Ethel has been going toGrey Cup games since retiring in 1996. Many of the fans attending the game will be Roughrider fans who make the trek every year.

And while in some places in this country, a plucky civic contrarianism might sustain a rogue fan base, it can’t here. Toronto is incapable of being seen as uncool. At our core, we are wretched hipsters. We console ourselves by admitting it.

If anything, what the CFL’s decline here has proven is how different this city is from the rest of the country. Not better or worse, just a profoundly alien ecosystem. More cosmopolitan. More diverse (and getting moreso all the time). More intently focused on the things that set us apart from the rest of the nation. Toronto is like New York in this way – willfully blind to anything happening outside the city limits.

How else to reconcile the fact that the CFL is doing just fine an hour down the road in Hamilton, or a few hours the other way in Ottawa? This isn’t Queen West versus Clichéville, Saskatchewan. It’s Toronto against everyone else.

That political and cultural divide is being expressed here through sport – “We don’t like what the rest of you like. We like what we like. And even if it means we can’t be friends, you can’t force us.”

The CFL ought to stop trying, for the sake of pride if nothing else. By constantly running back to Toronto and begging for attention, it devalues the love of its real fans.

If they gave up, nothing would change. The Argos aren’t going anywhere. They’re a minor line item on MLSE’s annual report. BMO Field is their Lenin’s Tomb – the franchise’s corpse will be on display for decades to come.

The only thing that’s shaping up as a new sort of letdown is the goodbye.

Grey Cup week hasn’t left the faintest impression on Toronto.

During rush hour on Wednesday evening, I passed a couple of fidgety middle-age guys walking along King Street in full Calgary Stampeders regalia – hats, jackets, jerseys. They were eyeing the rest of us suspiciously, obviously uncomfortable at attracting attention. We were looking at them like they were wearing frock coats and breeches. We weren’t recognizable to one another.

If the CFL were smart, the 104th Grey Cup would be the last forced intermingling of these two communities – the part of Canada that likes Canadian football and all the people who can see the CN Tower from their front step.

But the CFL is not smart. It will keep coming back for a fresh disappointment, bizarrely hoping that, this time, the body leaps from the casket.

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