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Garth Drabinsky has made a career selling sizzle. But when the former theatre promoter raised the curtain on his latest and perhaps most ambitious production -- selling the Toronto Argonauts -- he chose to emphasize the steak.

After going through the results of a detailed marketing survey, Drabinsky said yesterday he's created a plan that will make Canadian Football League games at the SkyDome a happening.

"The marketing of the Toronto Argonauts does pose some daunting challenges, but most of you know I thrive on challenges," he said. ". . . We're not climbing Everest here. There is enough latent interest in this team to more than reach our goals."

Drabinsky was introduced yesterday by Argonauts owner Sherwood Schwarz as the man he's depending on to market his aimless club.

Drabinsky is confident he can help the Argonauts recover from their attendance slide over the past two seasons, when the club was lucky to draw 15,000 people a game, many of whom were using discounted or free tickets.

"I'm comfortable we can draw 200,000 in fully paid attendance this year," Drabinsky said. "And it won't surprise me if we have a few games with 40,000 or more at the SkyDome."

Drabinsky took reporters through the framework of a marketing plan that seems to leave few stones unturned:

The club will try to touch on both consumers' nostalgia for the Argos and the CFL and their sense of value (the top season ticket package is $379, including taxes, and comes with six movie passes, free parking or free public transit).

There will be round-trip transportation from designated sites for those who buy single-game tickets in advance, or free public transit.

A media and promotional campaign worth $2-million is in the works.

A signature Toronto Argonauts song to be written by an "internationally heralded" Canadian recording group will be unveiled and performed at halftime of the team's season opener on July 3.

Schwarz described the embattled founder of Livent Inc. as a friend and said Drabinsky's experience in getting people into seats for long-running theatre productions such as Cats is the business acumen he was looking for when he hired him as a consultant and his long-time associate Fardad Yazdi as vice-president of marketing and sales.

It may seem like another strange hire for the New York-based owner, who is still trying to recover from handing J.I. Albrecht and John Huard the keys to his football operations when he took over the club before the 2000 season.

Drabinsky was charged in 1999 with 15 counts of security fraud and one count of conspiracy related to financial irregularities with Livent, and there's a warrant for his arrest in the United States.

"It's something that Garth and I have discussed," Schwarz said. "He feels, as I do, that once all the information comes out, he'll be vindicated. There's also the concept of presumed innocence. I think that's the tack we should take. I know Garth and I have no concerns. I think he will be vindicated."

Of more immediate concern is the plan to vindicate the Argonauts in the eyes of sports fans. Drabinsky said yesterday that his first step was to commission a market research firm to give an accurate picture of the Argonauts among consumers. Among the findings:

About 500,000 men in the greater Toronto area describe themselves as fans of the CFL.

The fan base is weak among those under 35.

The perceived popularity of the CFL ranks significantly below that of the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and National Football League, and slightly behind major-league baseball.

Among younger, more affluent fans, the NFL is almost twice as popular as the CFL.

The SkyDome is neither an asset nor a liability, but the overwhelming majority of football fans prefer to have the roof open for Argonaut games, even in poor weather.

Drabinsky said the club will focus on reaching out to high school students and families as part of its campaign to be recognized as an affordable option for live sports.

The club will close off the top levels of the SkyDome and sell advance seats for the 25,000-seat lower bowl first. Only when the lower bowl is sold out would additional tickets go on sale. Free tickets and game-day discounts will become a thing of the past.

"Our object is continue to drive ticket purchasing in advance of game day in order to tighten ticket availability," Drabinsky said. "It is expected the notion of a hard ticket will again become an Argo reality." -** -**


Garth Drabinsky was not the producer of the musical Cats. Incorrect information appeared in Tuesday's Globe and Mail. (Thursday, March 7, 2002, Page S8)