The Argos drew just 11,219 spectators to their 28-15 home loss to the B.C. Lions on Friday, their lowest attendance since relocating to BMO Field to start last season. And that came after just 13,583 fans attended Toronto’s 32-15 season-opening win there over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on June 25.
But Argos president Michael Copeland isn’t concerned.
“I think we as a group, from ownership right down to management and staff, understand this is a rebuild,” he said. “Ask anyone who’s trying to build a major brand, very rarely is it done overnight.
“We’re going to take our time and have patience while we do it but work aggressively each day until we reach that goal.”
There were factors working against the Argos on Friday. Not only was it the start of a holiday weekend but the Toronto Blue Jays were also in action at Rogers Centre versus the Boston Red Sox.
However, the opening-night attendance sent up red flags as Hamilton is usually a solid draw for the Argos. Last year, 24,812 spectators _ many clad in Hamilton’s black and gold colours _ watched the Ticats beat Toronto 42-20 at BMO Field to kick off the 2016 campaign.
Copeland said because Toronto is in rebuild mode and has a season-ticket base that’s smaller than other franchises _ Copeland wouldn’t provide specifics _ the Argos are vulnerable to such variables as weather and weeknight games.
“We have to work through things. we have to expect things are going to be unpredictable.” he said. “But we also think we’ve got a tremendous opportunity with this market, one that the Argos have a historical place in.
“We just need to reconnect a new generation of fans to the Argos and bring the existing generation of fans to the new experience at BMO Field.”
Toronto heads on the road for its next two games: in Ottawa on Saturday before visiting Winnipeg on July 13. And when the Argos return to BMO Field _ July 24 hosting Ottawa and Aug. 4 versus Calgary _ they’ll face the added challenge of trying to attract fans to weeknight contests
Toronto averaged 16,168 fans per game in 2016, their first at BMO Field.
Following Friday’s game, the Argos presented fans who attended with the opportunity to purchase tickets to the next two home games at 33-per-cent discounts.
“Our job and priority is to get as many people into the stadium that we can because we know they’re going to come back,” Copeland said. “What we’ve heard is almost universally people have loved the experience so that’s what ticket offers are directed at achieving.”
Copeland doesn’t believe Toronto’s attendance woes are because their ticket prices are too high.
“We have affordable tickets, tickets as low as $20 so we don’t think ticket prices are an issue,” he said. “Honestly, I think the issue we have now is one of awareness because we’re playing in a market that has some incredibly successful teams.
“The Blue Jays have been in the playoffs the last two years, the Raptors in the playoffs, the Leafs in the playoffs, Toronto FC in the playoffs. Last year was probably the busiest sports calendar in the history of the city. The Argonauts are coming off a long stretch of time where it was not affordable to market the club in a way to maintain that level of relevance and awareness and I think it’s just getting ourselves on the path.”
The Argos averaged 47,356 in their heyday in 1976 at Exhibition Place. In 2014, the average Rogers Centre regular-season crowd was 17,791 – down from 21,926 in 2013 and 23,690 in 2012.
Toronto moved to BMO Field following 27 seasons at Rogers Centre. Although the domed facility had a capacity exceeding 52,000 for football the Argos struggled there, averaging just 12,431 spectators in 2015.
Fans often complained about the cold, antiseptic atmosphere at Rogers Centre. By comparison, BMO Field is an open-air facility providing fans with great sightlines of both the field of play and nearby Lake Ontario.
“I think everything we did last year in terms of building the game experience at and around BMO Field with tailgating, leveraging the absolutely fantastic sightlines . . . we think we’re now in a position to grow,” he said. “It may take some time (but) we’re patient.”