In Part two of our series on the Toronto Argonauts, we get Argos’ historian James Fraser’s take on why small crowds tend to show up at BMO Field to watch them play.
See Part 1: Argos’ Inconsistent 2021 Form Not Unusual
In a city of roughly five million people, the average crowd at an Argos game in recent years has been somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 fans. The exception to that was Toronto’s Week 15 clash against Hamilton. That Friday night game attracted a crowd of more than 10,800.
The NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs regularly sell out Scotia Bank Arena with more than 19,000 fans in attendance. The Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball averaged crowds of more than 10,000 this season and peaked at 15,000 at Rogers Centre thanks to COVID limits. The Toronto Raptors of the NBA also play at Scotia Bank Arena and expect to get sellout crowds. So, what’s up with the Argos?
It is true that COVID-19 has played a part in crowd numbers in 2021, or more to the point, numbers have been capped by the Ontario government in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but that wasn’t the case in years gone by, yet it has been typical for some time for the Argonauts to draw smaller crowds than other CFL cities.
From time to time the team gets blamed for not doing enough to promote itself to the Toronto public, but according to Fraser, that’s a misnomer.
“The problem can only be solved if we understand it, and we don’t understand it as a problem,” he said. “The way I look at it is that it is kind of similar to the Gallic languages in Scotland, Ireland and Wales in that they can become endangered, or even die out completely, if they aren’t protected or safeguarded in some way.”
“Since I got interested in that, I’ve thought about the CFL issue with Toronto in somewhat similar terms. The presence of the NFL is a problem because it’s there and it’s interesting. It’s a multi-billion-dollar corporation that is trying to sell its product around the world, not just here. It’s trying to sell its product in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and China. The NFL is not a passive presence that simply is there and if you want to watch it you can, and if you don’t want to watch it you don’t have to.”
“So, the CFL is up against a multi-billion-dollar American corporation and like lots of smaller companies around the world in that situation they’ve got their work cut out for them to try to safeguard their product.”
Fraser continued that Toronto sees itself as an international city, a city with a multi-cultural population, and so the argument that is often used about being a proud Canadian and supporting a Canadian product doesn’t cut the mustard. He said people in Toronto see the city as being bigger than the nationalistic fervour that some other cities in Canada hold on to.
“Anything that is quintessentially Canadian almost strikes Toronto people as being small potatoes or minor league compared to what’s going on in the States,” he said. “You couple that with the NFL actively promoting its product, with betting and gambling companies actively promoting what they do, and that’s why there are so many people in Toronto who are into the NFL.”
“A lot of them don’t know anything about football, they don’t watch it, they just look for the results. All that matters is who won, who beat the spread and how much they beat the spread by last week. You can talk about that with your buddies as the water cooler or the coffee machine. The Argos just aren’t talked about.”
Fraser suggests another factor to take into consideration is the changing nature of the media. He said in the last 25 years, media companies have become corporations and so they are trying to sell products rather than just provide information, which is what they used to do.
“The media would cover the Argos because they were a Toronto team, but now they say well, if people aren’t listening, or if we’re not getting the clicks or selling the newspapers from that, then we’re going to stop. Now the Argos are covered by only one of the local newspapers in any sort of depth.”
“It’s a combination of the nature of the city changing, the power of the NFL and how much it’s pushing itself in a market like Toronto. That’s massively underappreciated by people in Toronto. They mostly say the owner of the team isn’t marketing the team well enough, or isn’t trying hard enough, or the local radio station isn’t mentioning them enough.”
“Some of that is probably true, but it’s hard for a relatively small Canadian, Australian, English or Scottish company that’s trying to sell the same product as a multi-billion-dollar American company to compete for that money.”
Fraser added that there’s no reason why people can’t watch both. He said in other cities that do well with crowds such as Regina and Hamilton, people watch the NFL on TV but still go to CFL games in person.
“That’s the strangest thing,” he said. “And I don’t know why people in Toronto feel that you have to not like the Argonauts. The cool thing in Toronto is to think that the CFL sucks even though people have no reason to back it up.”
“That’s the bit I haven’t figured out. I can understand the forces the CFL is competing with, but why can’t you like them both?”