The Toronto Argonauts have been working toward this Sunday for a very long time: A day when tailgate grills can fire up at 9 a.m. along with the sale of Caesars and beer, and the team will play host to its first playoff game at BMO Field, expecting its biggest crowd yet in its new home.
Hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday's Eastern Division final is the kind of opportunity the Argonauts need, as the club has averaged a CFL-low 13,913 spectators a game in its second year at BMO Field. The Argonauts say they have a shot at surpassing the record crowd of 24,812 that attended their first game there last summer.
The Argos have struggled for attention in a crowded Toronto marketplace and have drawn the ire of a small but vocal faction of Toronto FC fans who fretted about a football team sharing the soccer squad's precious natural-grass field. BMO Field's grounds crew has done its part to quiet many critics by keeping a pristine field. Now the Argos hope to show a big crowd – and fans watching on TV, too – how good pro football can be inside Toronto's new home by the lake.
"The things our game-days offer inside the stadium, and our tailgate – I would stack that up against just about anything in this city, and this gives us a chance to prove it to more fans in the stadium," said Sara Moore, the Argos senior vice-president of business operations. "A regular Argos game does grab a good TV audience, so a playoff game will grab even more – we already know that part. But now, we'll be able to showcase to a larger Toronto audience, as well as a national audience, what the experience is like in Toronto. It's a real opportunity."
The Argos, who won the CFL's East with a 9-9 record, take on Saskatchewan, who finished fourth in the West and crossed over because its 10-8 record was better than the third-place team in the East. A trip to the Grey Cup is on the line and some believe the well-travelled green-clad fans of the popular Roughriders will take over BMO Field.
The Argos say the majority of ticket sales have come from the Greater Toronto Area. They acknowledge that Rider fans live all over, and come by tickets in different ways, but only 100 tickets were purchased by those using Saskatchewan postal codes.
Inside BMO Field, armed with state-of-the-art tools and technology, the grounds crew has been meticulously caring for the grass field where both the Argos and TFC are holding playoff games this November. They've used enormous grow lamps to extend hours of light, along with an inflatable tarp that creates a greenhouse-like tent over the surface to protect the grass from the elements.
"I haven't had any complaints from either club," said head groundskeeper Robert Heggie of the second season of field-sharing between TFC and the Argos. "We look in TFC fan forums once in a while and we see comments they post to our Twitter feed, and there were less fans complaining and more saying, 'I didn't think it would work, but they've done it again.' If this was grounds-keeping in the eighties and nineties it might not have worked. But we've got incredible tools now to do this kind of thing successfully and we're proving it can be done."
There will be nine days to turn around the field for TFC's playoff game on Nov. 29. The new inflatable tarp will play a key role.
"There's room in that stadium for both of us, and as long as both teams are winning and doing well, there's no reason for any fans to have concerns," Argos defensive back Matt Black said. "Our field at BMO is pristine, and my hat is off to the grounds crew. I've never had an issue with footing in there. From my vantage point, I don't think the grass could be greener on any other side."
A beautiful pitch and a big game are only part of the boatmen's long journey to increasing their popularity.
"Winning is not enough, just like moving into BMO Field wasn't enough, but it gives you a great opportunity and we've got to make the most of it," Moore said. "We have to keep players relevant in the city and continue to market and stay in the conversation."