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Toronto Maple Leafs fan at at the Air Canada Centre, April 20, 2004. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Maple Leafs fan at at the Air Canada Centre, April 20, 2004. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

When it comes to sports, Toronto is a city of losers Add to ...

The question deserves asking again, after another terrible season for the Maple Leafs and as another dreadful one beckons for the Blue Jays: Why are Toronto sports teams the worst collectively in North America?

On the ice, field and court, Toronto teams are mediocre-to-awful, year after year. Together, they are the poorest performing group of sports teams of any city in North America.

Go ahead. Name another market of comparable size where all major-league teams are consistently so bad. Washington? The city's baseball, football and basketball teams are poor, but the hockey team is arguably the best. Detroit? The baseball, football and basketball teams struggle horribly, but the hockey is consistently championship-calibre or close. No, Toronto is the worst.

The Maple Leafs, we are told, have a promising future. We are always told that toward the end of the season when the Leafs win some games, mostly against teams that are taking the night off against a weak opponent. Still, the Toronto media - and national media - lavish such attention on Toronto, while playing down coverage of much better teams, that one supposes they have to say something. So why not another dose of false optimism?

The Leafs, under the guidance of their new general manager Brian Burke, actually went backward this year. They got 81 points in 2009 and finished seventh from the bottom overall; this year, they will finish with even fewer points and wind up second-worst overall. And, by the way, the Leafs have traded their first-round draft pick for this year and next year, plus this year's second-round pick.

The Blue Jays had 75 wins and 87 losses last season. They look bad again this year, and will be lucky to match last year's number of victories. The doleful legacy effects of the Paul Godfrey/J.P. Ricciardi in the senior management positions will be felt for years to come.

The Toronto Argonauts were the laughingstock of the Canadian Football League in 2009, winning three and losing 15.

Last season the Toronto Raptors basketball team won 33 games and lost 49. This year, they hover around .500, which for a Toronto sports team represents almost a championship season.

So what is it about Toronto? Why do the city's teams stink? And why do their fans, especially those of the Maple Leafs, stick with such losers, when fans in other cities would be in full howl all the time, and many would refuse to attend games.

That fans stick with the Leafs is part of the problem. (At least fans have been deserting the Blue Jays in disgust at their performance). Year after year, Leafs' management knows it can put chopped meat on the ice and still the Air Canada Centre will be sold out, with astronomically high ticket prices. The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan and the other owners can't fail to make money, so maybe they just don't care very much. Or maybe they do, but they are just not very bright.

If the Leafs were a car, "Leaf Nation" would have traded it in years ago. If the team were a television station, fans would have switched the channel. If the Buds were a stock broker who consistently lost their money, fans would have headed somewhere else. If a restaurant consistently served bad food, would the patrons keep coming?

A woman in Nova Scotia once summed up the craziness of it all at a reception. Asked for her hockey team, she said the Leafs. Asked why she continued to support mediocrity, she shrugged and said rather defiantly, "I've ditched my husband and lost my job, but I can't abandon the Leafs." There's nothing rational in rewarding failure; indeed, rewarding failure with such misplaced and raucous passion invites more failure. It could even be said that nowhere in professional support are fans less humble with so much to be humble about.

An excuse once offered was the Canadian dollar. Its low level meant expenditures in U.S. currency but revenues in Canadian money, but that didn't explain why other Canadian hockey teams were better than the Leafs, since they all faced the same challenge. Of late, the Canadian dollar excuse has disappeared.

Ownership obviously counts in explaining consistent failure, since ultimately ownership and senior management over the long term are more responsible than any part of the company for its performance.

Yet shame never seemed to influence the behaviour of the owners of Toronto sports teams, who carried on clipping coupons while their teams sagged. They knew they operated in an apparently gullible and masochistic market that thought of itself as "world class," a favourite Toronto self-appellation, but too often settled for second-best.

Some day, presumably, one of Toronto's teams will again be strong - strong enough to at least make the playoffs. That day, however, looks a long way off.

In the meantime, Toronto remains indisputably the city of sports losers.

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